Seine-Saint-Denis, France – April 24 will conclude France’s presidential election, pitting incumbent Emmanuel Macron against the far-right Marine Le Pen, but the political finale will not be a big moment in Beaudottes, part of the deprived banlieue, or suburb, of Sevran, northeast of Paris.
Home to high-rise buildings and a large number of French citizens with ancestry in the Middle East, the Maghreb and Africa, people shrug when asked about the runoff.
“I’m not going to vote. I don’t trust anybody,” said Saloun Dramé, an unemployed 28-year-old looking for work as an accounting clerk. “This is the ghetto. You’ve got to live here to understand it. Politicians don’t have a clue what life is like here.”
Tensions recently spiked in this neighbourhood after police killed a Black man called Jean-Paul Benjamin.
On March 26, a policeman shot the 33-year-old father-of-two in a van that had been reported stolen. It later transpired that Benjamin had kept the van after his employer, sub-contracted to Amazon, had refused to pay him.
Residents are angry that initial media reports depicted Benjamin as a thief, potentially legitimising the killing. They are angry that subsequent revolts in Sevran, and neighbouring Aulnay-sous-Bois and Tremblay-en-France, which resulted in dozens of arrests, were depicted as riots.
And, with the officer in question currently on probation as he awaits trial for involuntary manslaughter, they are angry at what they perceive to be a broader culture of police impunity among immigrant populations in the suburbs.
“They didn’t do anything to calm the situation. They just sent the riot police,” said Yao Tsolenyanou, 40, referring to the 15 vans of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, the general reserve of the French National Police, which were counted outside the main railway station on April 9 by Al Jazeera.
This raises things to a new level. The more they provoke us, the more the violence will increase. Now it’s a game of who can go further, who will do the most damage.”
With emotions running so high, the elections almost seem like a side note. Tsolenyanou said that, as a Black man, he has no reason to vote.
“I was born in France. I am French. But France doesn’t consider me French,” he said. “It’s a climate of war here.”
Macron, who won the most votes in Sunday’s first round – 27.8 percent nationally, against Le Pen’s 23.1 percent – has been exhorting voters to “faire barrage”, to block Le Pen, who has softened her image, distancing her National Rally party from the jackbooted associations of her father’s Front National.
But while most of her campaign emphasised the cost-of-living crisis, she has maintained a hard line on banning the headscarf and introducing French-first measures for benefits, health, housing and jobs.
Even so, with much of the political landscape having shifted to the right, voters in places such as Beaudottes do not view Macron as a sufficiently differentiated alternative.
His term has been characterised by an increase in inequality, a violent crackdown on the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), work-for-welfare proposals, arbitrary closures of mosques and Muslim associations and a controversial interview on Islam, the veil and immigration with the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles.
With an abstention rate of 32 percent, the commune of Sevran is above the national average of 25 percent.
More than half of voters in Sevran backed socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came third, with 22 percent of the vote nationally, and now find themselves in the position of kingmakers.
On Allée de la Pérouse, where a banner calling for “Truth and justice for Jean-Paul” hangs at the entrance of a basketball court, one Mélenchon supporter who did not want to be named said he was tempted to vote for Le Pen as an anti-system gesture – “just to p**s everyone off”.