Fadela, Afef, Naima and Yasmine all grew up in North African families in the Mediterranean city of Marseille, and all want a policy of firmness on immigration and welfare reform from France’s next president.
For centuries Marseille has acted as a melting pot, absorbing waves of immigration from Italy, Armenia, eastern Europe and France’s former African colonies that made it the country’s most ethnically-mixed city.
“Marseille is a land of welcome. People here say they are ‘Marseillais’ first, and French second,” said Myriam Salah-Eddine, the 35-year-old daughter of Moroccan immigrants and a deputy to the city’s centre-right mayor.
“There is a real sense of belonging,” forged in loyalty to the local football team and star player Zinedine Zidane and helped by a sunny climate and urban planning that managed to avoid immigrant ghettoes, she said.
But among established North Africans, estimated at around 150,000 people out of a population of 800,000, there are signs that attitudes towards immigration are toughening.
Fatima Arazi, a 51-year-old photographer who moved to France from Morocco 30 years ago, runs a tea room and women’s association in an immigrant district of central Marseille.
Though she belongs to a network campaigning for an amnesty for illegal immigrants already settled in France, Fatima has come to back a radical line on immigration.
“North Africans are sick of seeing their countrymen living in misery. There just isn’t enough work here,” said Fatima, who runs co-development schemes in African villages “to persuade people not to come here in the first place.”
“The going rate for illegal immigrant workers in the neighbourhood is 15 euros a day for a woman, 20 for a manhow can you live on that?”
She says she cannot bear to see Muslim women in their 50s forced to work as prostitutes in the neighbourhood and advocates “one big amnesty and then we stop everything”.
For Yasmine Mendy, 21, a catering student who arrived in France from Morocco as a baby, “We need to stop immigration and sort out our own problems first.”
Algerian-born Fadela Garbi, also 21 and training to become a laboratory technician, agrees there should be “no more immigration at all”, admitting that she doesn’t “want immigrants pinching my job”.
Only Samiaa 21-year-old biotechnology student whose parents arrived illegally from Tunisiasaid she supported further immigration “if it can give people a chance, like I had.”
The others deny any affinity with the far-right National Front (FN) leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who calls for zero immigration, the deportation of all illegal immigrants and the scrapping of welfare protection for foreigners.
“If Le Pen wins, my suitcases are readyI’ll get straight out of here!” said Fatima with a rueful laugh.
But an ethnic minority vote for the FN exists in the Bouches-du-Rhone region around Marseille, where Le Pen clocked up one of his highest scores in the run-off against Jacques Chirac in 2002.
“A lot of people from minorities do vote for the FN, though it’s hard to put a figure on it,” said Salah-Eddine, who belongs to the UMP party of Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing presidential frontrunner.
“Many black and Arab people have real trouble accepting a small fraction of their community that soils their imagelike Islamic extremistsand they imagine that Le Pen targets only those people.”
Asked who they would back in Sunday’s vote, the women in Fatima’s tea room gave short shrift to the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal.
“Segolene’s just trying to pull the wool over our eyes,” said Yasmine, while Fatima worried “no one knows how she plans to pay for all these promises.”
“People think ‘I’m North African so I have to vote for the left’,” said Naima Yahia-Berrouiguet, a 30-year-old secretary of Algerian parents. “But Segolene just wants to raise taxeswith the left we’re going to sacrifice people on middle-incomes.”
All approved of Sarkozy’s campaign pledge to make work pay more than welfareand were unfazed by his description of young troublemakers in immigrant suburbs as “racaille” (rabble). “Guys here boast about being ‘racailles’. It’s not even an insult,” Fadela said.
Fatima said she “agrees with seven out of 10 things Sarkozy says”, complaining that “France’s welfare system has created a culture of layaboutsonce you add up all the different benefits, it’s not even worth getting a job.”
But she and the others were also uncomfortable with his blunt styleFadela reproaching him for always “taking the side of the police” and Naima warning “for young people, it would be like a Big Brother society if he’s elected.”
Afef, 43, a soft-spoken mother of five who arrived in France from Tunisia as a toddler and works as a school caretaker, said: “I agree with Sarkozy’s ideas, on tax and jobs for young peoplebut he scares me.”
So four of the six women said they were preparing, without much conviction, to vote for the centrist Francois Bayrou because, in Samia’s words, “There’s no other choice. Sarkozy has lots of good ideasbut his methods just aren’t right”.