The great divide

Some in France were disillusioned not just by Marine Le Pen, but by all of the presidential candidates

The far-right candidate and centrist Emmanuel Macron advanced to a runoff after Sunday’s first-round election, but some women and young activists say they had no choice at all

Giant figures depicting right-wing presidential candidates Francois Fillon (C) next to far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (L) and centrist independent presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, on January 27, 2017 in Nice, southeastern France. (VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

The discussions about the first round of the French presidential election has captured much of the world’s attention for variety of reasons — from the rise of far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the increase in terror attacks throughout France to France’s own membership in the European Union. But for women and civil rights activists living and working in the Banlieue — the suburbs of Paris known also as the ghettos where many French of immigrants origins live — none of the presidential candidates address the social and economic challenges faced by France or its most marginalized communities and they are looking at American activists to learn how to fight back.

Tara Dickman, a community organizer and trainer for public servants on secularist values and civil rights issues said, “White people have been saying stuff like, ‘lets fight Marie Le Pen.’ Diverse people in the suburbs are saying, “it does not matter really.  There [are] no non-racist candidates right now.” Tara voted in Sunday’s election, but many of her activists friends, like Samia Hathroubi, boycotted.

Hathroubi, an activist for inter-religious dialogue, explained her reason for not voting by saying, “I don’t identify with any of them. All men. All white. Most of them are part of the system since years. They are the one[s] who led us to a society where inequalities are day after day increasing.” She is joined by many other activists — those who fight for refugees’ rights or LGBT or women’s rights — who, regardless of their participation in the election, are unified in what seems to be a disillusioned view of French politicians and their active roles in what they see as “xenophobic, racist and sexist discussions and policies.”

“Marine Le Pen has framed the issue in this election. This is what is happening. At the end, she has done a great campaign and she worked hard,” Tara explains and adds, “for those of us who grew up in the Banlieue, democracy is the issue not the left nor the right.”

Hanane Karimi, a Ph.D student in sociology reiterates the concern that none of the candidates were talking about the issues at the heart of French tension, whether they be “ethnic and social apartheid in the suburbs, police crimes, and the state of emergency.” Hanane also refrained from voting. Her reason: “None of the presidential candidates had radical proposals concerning the fight against racism and Islamophobia.” She is joined by Hathroubi, who explains, “For me issues of inequalities, education, persistence of structural discrimination, terrorism and foreign policy were not addressed and if some said something it has been enough.”

Leyla, an expert on the state of minorities in France is worried. “We can’t follow this kind of thinking. It’s dangerous. Most candidates are full of disappointment, its true. I am afraid though [the] country will be stuck in the five years with such negative thinking and we will have the extreme right.”  She continues, adding, “It is not very a positive outcome from the election but everything is possible and while everything is possible we can always give it a fight.”

A fight is indeed what many young activists are preparing for. Regardless of the result of the May 7 runoff election between Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, many warn that Le Pen is strong at the local level, and has an upper hand on the legislative election — making it even that much more critical than the presidential election.

“It is the largest [of] stories and it is our responsibility at the grassroots [level] to get our act together and learn from Americans on how they fight back,” Tara explains.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit


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