French election: Is Muslim candidate's criminal record fair game or race baiting?

Ahead of next month's French election, allegations about a French-African Muslim candidate's criminal record is raising questions about whether France offers a level playing field for ethnic minorities. Ali Soumaré, a candidate in regional elections, says he is the victim of slander.

By , Staff writer

Despite ideals of equality and suburbs packed with ethnic minorities, politics in France is still mainly populated by whites. As the country prepares for regional elections, a popular candidate with African origins and a Muslim name is facing serious attacks that demonstrate the barriers that still remain for minority groups trying to break into French politics.

Ali Soumaré is the No. 1 Socialist party list candidate in the Val d’Oise suburb outside of Paris. The district, known as “Nine-Five,” is poor and tough, a place where young, unemployed Africans and Arabs often stand around “holding up the walls,” to use the Algerian expression. In these neighborhoods, Mr. Soumaré has become a symbol of progress.

Even Le Monde newspaper called Soumaré a “rising star” following his calm mediation between police and locals during a major riot in 2007 after a police car killed two French Arab and African children and protesters shot and injured four police.

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But now the unusual candidate finds himself in the midst of a fiery controversy. Ruling party figures have alleged that he has a repeat offender arrest record and requested that he withdraw from the race. Minority groups mainly see this as a craven attempt by the old guard to defame and topple their young star. Meanwhile, Soumaré and the Socialists plan charge ruling party figures with slander.

The allegations aired by Francis Delattre, a member of the ruling party and a small town mayor who is not running against Soumaré, contain one clear conviction for theft and minor assault when Soumaré was 19, which he previously acknowledged. Several other alleged arrests are inconclusive. Moreover, the information about the cases was likely obtained illegally and one charge is a mistake – which Delattre apologized for on Wednesday.

Rarely, if ever, has a top candidate in France been accused of repeat offenses or for street crimes. Unsurprisingly the allegations have opened a debate over Soumaré’s merits and raised questions about race in a system that has previously avoided it, except on the far right. Charges usually involve favoritism and corruption. Prior to the arrest allegations, Delattre had gone after Soumaré, saying he looked “like a soccer player” not a politician, angering minorities.

'Delinquent or slander victim'

Commentators in the media and on the Internet lit up on the left and right in turgid discourse over crime, reform, and legitimacy – but increasingly over defamatory politics not seen in quite this way before in secular France. “Delinquent – or slander victim?” is the question for Rue89, a French web news site.

“Everybody knows Soumaré is a new kind of candidate that French people aren’t used to, a young black guy from the suburbs,” says Christelle Edey, a Socialist candidate in the neighboring 93 banlieue. “He’s attacked because he is black. After everything is said, we have one of five charges confirmed, from 1999, when Soumaré was young, and he has said he made a mistake.”

Axel Poniatowski, a UMP candidate, countered on French radio that, “voters and citizens should know this candidate has committed theft and assault.”

The Socialist Party, after two days of silence to review the case, has come out strongly behind Soumaré -- who went on French radio Tuesday saying that “when I was young I made mistakes…I committed a crime…I’ve changed since then, and that should be an example. I’ve moved from a petty criminal to an active citizen.”

As of mid-week the Delattre revelations appeared to be backfiring somewhat – as ruling party UMP leaders distanced themselves from what increasingly appeared a racially motivated mud fight.

Man of the people

Soumaré got into politics after the sudden spurt of support for right-wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 national elections, and he rose swiftly in Socialist ranks after mediating the 2007 riots. Since then, however, he has allegedly provoked the police by backing the families of the two boys killed when a police car ran into their bike. The officers have been acquitted but the families have appealed the decision, which Soumaré has supported. Police have said that he has taken on a role almost like the families' spokesman, which has not pleased the police.

Frederic Lefebvre, the UMP ruling party spokesman, on Thurday said that "When the French people go to the polls, they must remember that there are two conceptions of security in our country." He said the UMP chose as its candidate for Val d’Oise a former police captain, “and "the Socialist Party, chose someone who has been sentenced.”

Views from the Soumaré's district might be summed up by a 31-year-old Algerian man, Tafiq, who grew up in the area. He says that he is “completely sympathetic” with someone who escaped the downward spiral of a neighborhood, “where if you put your head up even slightly the police will cut you off at the legs.” Pointing to the current cover of the magazine Marianne, containing a photo of Georges Freche, a former Socialist party boss from the south who is defending a host of racial and ethnic slurs he made, Tariq said, “That man gets on the cover of Marianne to explain himself, but Soumaré will be attacked and never given a voice.”

The French media, at least on the center and the left, picked up the Soumaré case after blogs and Facebook pages lit up with chatter about the case this week. Speaking of the UMP, the left daily Liberation editorialized that, “They aimed low and missed…it was already sleazy to rummage into Ali Soumaré’s past and dig up convictions and try and discredit him, thanks to a civil servant’s probably illegal indiscretion.” Le Figaro, on the right, ran a poll asking if Soumaré was “a good candidate,” with two thirds answering in the negative.

Despite a secular and egalitarian tradition in France, only seven of some 860 members of the French and Assembly come from non-white backgrounds.

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