CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France - A year and a half ago, when two teenage boys fleeing from police were accidentally electrocuted in this immigrant district on the outskirts of Paris, it touched off three weeks of rioting across France that some say marked the beginning of the end of Jacques Chirac’s presidency.
In the months that followed, community activists began channeling the simmering anger of young immigrants into a voter registration drive that they hope will pay dividends on Sunday when French voters go to the polls to begin the process of choosing Chirac’s successor.
More than 2,500 new voters have been added to Clichy’s electoral rolls in the past year, a 30 percent increase. Across France, an estimated 1.8 million new voters have registered, according to media reports.
“It’s the only thing politicians understand,” said Samir Mihi, 29, a sports instructor and community activist who helped register voters in Clichy. “You can be a French citizen, but if you don’t vote, they don’t take you into account.”
As the fiercely contested campaign headed into its final hours, center-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy remained the front-runner and appeared to be the only candidate among 12 on the ballot certain to make it into the second round of voting. But his ultimate triumph is far from assured.
The other leading contenders are socialist Segolene Royal, the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency; centrist Francois Bayrou and the far-right’s perennial favorite, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Polls last week showed Sarkozy leading with 27 percent to 29 percent, followed by Royal with 21 percent to 26 percent. Bayrou, who had drawn even with Royal little more than a month ago, has slipped under 20 percent. The top two finishers face each other in a May 6 run-off.
What makes Bayrou’s candidacy intriguing is that more than a third of the electorate says it is still undecided, and 60 percent of voters say they trust neither the left nor the right. If Bayrou can make it into the run-off, polls indicate that he would defeat either Sarkozy or Royal.
The other wild card in the race is Le Pen, who is currently polling at about 13 percent to 14 percent. But because of his unsavory reputation - he once dismissed the Holocaust as “a detail of history” - many Le Pen supporters are reluctant to admit their preference to pollsters.
In the 2002 election, France was stunned when Le Pen made it into the run-off by edging out the Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin before losing to Chirac in the second round.
Chirac, a deeply unpopular figure in France these days, is not seeking a third term.
In recent elections, voter turnout in Clichy has tended to be lower than the national average. That is expected to change in this election, mainly because of Sarkozy, who has had a polarizing effect on the town’s mixed community of recent immigrants and working-class French.
During the 2005 riots, Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, described the young immigrant rioters as “scum” and promised a harsh crackdown. His admirers praise him as a tough proponent of law-and-order while foes see him as a dangerous authoritarian figure who panders to anti-immigrant sentiments.
Asked for her voting preference, Frederique Luisoni, a first-time voter answered by announcing whom she would definitely not vote for:
“Never for Sarkozy or Le Pen,” said the 18-year old student who works as a clerk in a shopping mall flower store.
But in a perfume shop nearby, Diane Lyon, 25, another first-time voter, said she was backing Sarkozy.
“He has a track record. When he was in power, he addressed the problem (of crime), and when there were problems here, he responded,” she said.
In addition to his tough stance on crime, Sarkozy has called for more flexibility in the French economy and for relaxing some of the work rules that are sacrosanct to France’s powerful trade unions - positions that set him apart from his closest rival, Royal.
Jean Paul Le Flem, 63, a retired autoworker, said he agreed with Sarkozy on the economy.
“The unemployed get too many benefits, and I include myself when I was unemployed,” he said. “In the United States, if you want to make money, you have to work. In France, we don’t have that freedom.”
Le Flem also said that Le Pen had “good ideas” for France, but that at 78, the far-right nationalist was “too old” to be president.