Aulnay-sous-Bois mayor Bruno Beschizza cast his vote on 23 April in a sunny elementary school tucked in a residential neighborhood in an affluent part of the city.
The town, which sits to the north-east of Paris, is the third largest in the Île-de-France region and has a population of 82,520. It is socio-economically mixed, giving the impression of several, separate towns grouped into one. The south tends to be more affluent, while the north is home to a large public housing estate.
This fracture made its way to international headlines in February when a white police officer was charged with using a truncheon to anally rape a young black man from the Aulnay-sous-Bois projects.
Like other towns in the department of Seine Saint Denis, Aulnay-sous-Bois is known for low voter participation. Only about half of the population - roughly 44,000 people - registered to vote in this year’s presidential elections.
“This problem isn’t specific to this presidential election,” said Mayor Beschizza, a former police officer and member of the conservative Republicans party. “We know civic engagement is low here - it’s been like this for the past 20 years. We do see engagement in local elections. The thing is, in communities facing all kinds of difficulties - be they social or economic - people feel like anything other than hyper-local politics is very distant.”
Voting to fight stigma
But the day of the elections, there was an unprecedented turnout in the low-income neighbourhoods in the north.
Throughout the afternoon, a steady stream of people filed into another Aulnaysien polling station, Paul Eluard Elementary School-- which sits on a tree-lined street just north of the town’s socio-economic dividing line, a dilapidated shopping centre.
The crumbling, graffiti-adorned Galion mall is dominated by a huge poster featuring French national footballer Moussa Sissoko. He’s is a local boy, a former resident of the projects nicknamed “3,000” for the original number of units. It was built in 1969 for employees at the nearby Citroën car factory, most of them immigrants from France’s former colonies. At that time, when France’s economy was booming, the state and industrialists encouraged immigration as a source of cheap labour.
A large number of voters on Sunday were young, most of them, born and raised in France, are the children and grandchildren of these immigrant workers. Walid, a 23-year-old electrician at Air France, was voting in his first presidential election.
“I grew up here in Aulnay-sous-Bois and people stigmatise us a lot,” he said. “I was determined to put my ballot in the ballot box so that people see that, even in Aulnay, we are interested in the elections. We are here and we are French, so we have the responsibility to vote.”
He said he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“All of my friends are voting this year,” Walid said, a sentiment echoed by many voters.
Ambre Froment, a 23-year-old volunteer at the Paul Eluard polling station, grew up in Aulnay-sous-Bois. She herself is highly politicised and is planning to run for legislative office this year and is a local representative for the party of hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
“There is this story that people here don’t care about politics,” she said. “But it isn’t true. I think people here are even more engaged than my friends in Paris.”
Unemployment tops concerns
Voters from 3,000 know what issue is most important to them: unemployment, especially for young people. According to city officials, one out of three young people in Aulnay-sous-Bois is without work. The housing projects are the most affected.
Some find part-time work at the bustling market near 3,000. Marie-Ange, who is doing her Sunday shopping there, came to Aulnay-sous-Bois from the French overseas department of Guadeloupe in the 1960s as part of another French government scheme to recruit labour. She is retired from her job in the hotel industry but she worries for her grandchildren.
“I’m an old lady, I’m retired and, honestly, I’m almost dead, so I’m not expecting anything,” she said. “But what I’m worried about are the young people. There’s no jobs, nothing. Young people go to school and yet there is nothing waiting for them. It makes me cry.”
For most residents of 3,000 the issue is clear. However, it’s considerably harder to identify the candidate who might solve that issue. In desperation, Marie-Ange fasted for three days and prayed all morning but at 3.00pm on election day, she still hadn’t figured out who to vote for.
Minorities feel excluded
Back at the polling station, excited whisperings and occasional shouts gave away many voters' preference for Mélenchon, who has had growing support among youth on the capital's outskirts.
Mélenchon ended up winning Aulnay-sous-Bois, finishing with 10,214 votes (33.81%). He swept the northern part of the city, getting almost 60 percent of votes in an area that has historically voted for the President François Hollande's Socialist Party. At the Paul Eluard polling station, 342 votes cast were for Mélenchon out of a total of 579.
But, on the ground, the support was more nuanced. Many people said they came to the polls with heads spinning from the dizzying array of 11 candidates. Though this feeling marked elections in communities all across France, residents of 3,000 felt particular distance from the candidates.
Kartoum Touré is a 27-year-old teacher who lives in Aulnay-sous-Bois. She was born and raised in France, but she said that she often feels excluded from national dialogue because of her Malian origins and Muslim faith.
Standing in front of the polling station, she still didn’t know who to vote for.
“It’s my responsibility to vote as a French citizen. But when I look at all the candidates, none of them actually fit with me,” Touré said. “It makes me wonder - does being French mean dressing a certain way? Or thinking in a certain way? Or eating in a certain way? Is it a specific haircut or does it mean having blue eyes? Well, I don’t have blue eyes, I have textured hair and I wear a headscarf. And I’m French, too.”
Local politician's ambitions
For the people from the 3,000 projects, there just isn’t a candidate who represents them, yet.
On Sunday, as the polls prepared to close, a young man named Hadama Traoré was just getting started. Traoré, who’s from Aulnay-sous-Bois, is preparing to run for local office in elections in 2020. His focus is local concerns, ranging from police violence to unemployment to zoning problems - all issues that could get people to the polls.
As the sun set on Sunday evening, Traoré was holding a community meeting in the market square. Attendees balanced plastic plates stacked with homemade baked goods and kids played with Traoré’s loudspeaker, shouting his slogan “La révolution est en marche!”, or “The revolution is happening!”
But Traoré has his eyes on bigger things. In 15 years, he says, his movement could have a enough steam to go for the presidency.
And he hopes that, if that election comes, the choice of who to vote for would be a bit easier for many from 3,000.