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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 / February 25, 2010


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.

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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.

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.”