As French politicians gear up for presidential and legislative elections, the country's five million ethnic Arabs, Africans and Turks -- Western Europe's largest Muslim community -- are getting an unprecedented amount of attention. Although only a third of French Muslims are eligible to vote, they are emerging as a force in French politics.
For 33-year-old Malika Ahmed, the call to exercise political power resounds this night from a nondescript stadium in the southern French city of Toulouse, where she campaigns with her favorite presidential contender.
That candidate is Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who is running in France's two-round presidential vote, which begins this month. Miss Ahmed, a deputy mayor from the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, says she believes Mr. Chevenement is the right man for the job, because of his political independence and his commitment to equality.
More particularly, Miss Ahmed likes the fact Mr. Chevenement resigned as defense minister in 1991, to protest France's involvement in the Gulf War against Iraq. She also admires his campaign promise to offer equal opportunities to ethnic Moroccans like herself.
Ms. Ahmed is an example of how France's Muslim electorate is changing. Sociologist Franck Fregosi says the political preferences of earlier generations of France's Muslims were easily predicted. Their parents supported conservative candidates while their offspring backed liberal or leftist candidates. But Mr. Fregosi says in this election Muslim voters are not limiting themselves to the two main presidential candidates, conservative President Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
Mr. Fregosi says most French Muslims are shopping around this election season. And an array of presidential candidates is scrambling for their support.
When an Islamic association in Paris held a forum on political participation last month, top aides from France's main parties were on hand to respond to their dozen campaign demands. Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has softened his anti-immigration rhetoric, and hired an ethnic North African aide.
Few are more aware of the Muslim electorate than Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin, who are running almost dead even in the polls. A small shift in support could tip the voting scales.
Mr. Chirac's conservative Rally for the Republic Party has traditionally counted on backing from France's aging harkis -- Algerians who sided with France during their country's war of independence. But today, the president is also getting support from young French Muslims, who consider him more pro-Palestinian than Mr. Jospin.
One of Mr. Chirac's main election themes, for example, is cracking down on crime. But, as political analyst Steve Ekovich points out, Mr. Chirac also hopes his get-tough-on-crime message will appeal to Muslim voters in French towns like Mantes-la-Jolie.
"One of the first places Chirac went to was Mantes-la-Jolie -- and placed himself in a neighborhood that represented, symbolically, problems with security -- that's the number one issue. But it's also a city with an important Muslim population," Mr. Ekovich said.
Nor has Mr. Jospin forgotten the Muslim electorate. Like Mr. Chirac, the prime minister toured North Africa late last year. And Mr. Jospin's campaign platform acknowledges a key demand of many long-time immigrants -- giving non-European residents the right to vote.
But how well the candidates are doing in attracting Muslim voters is not clear. France's secular republican creed of liberty, equality and fraternity shuns notions of special lobbies and communities. Indeed, there are no official polls breaking down voter support by ethnic origin or religion.
But in reality, French Muslims remain a fractured and sidelined minority. A small middle class of doctors, lawyers and local politicians like Miss Ahmed is emerging, but they are a minority. The vast majority of France's Muslims, experts say, remain locked into second-rate schools, low-paying jobs and gritty suburban housing projects roiled by spiraling violence.
Other analysts, like Mouloud Aouni, say political parties are also reluctant to accept diversity within their ranks.
Mr. Aouni is head of a French anti-racist group called MRAP. He notes few minorities occupy top public sector jobs. And not a single member of France's Senate or National Assembly is of Arab extraction. Even members of France's political establishment agree. That includes Roselyne Bachelot, campaign spokeswoman for Mr. Chirac.
Mrs. Bachelot says she believes the French political system is elitist. One example, she says, is the difficulty women politicians face in winning places of power. She agrees minority groups face similar problems.
But French politics is changing, albeit slowly. In municipal elections last year, dozens of ethnic Arab politicians, including deputy mayors like Miss Ahmed, were elected. A survey last year by France's Le Monde newspaper found 35 percent of the French hostile to the idea of a Muslim mayor. Though this figure is pretty high, it is significantly lower than in 1994, when 55 percent of those polled said they opposed the idea of a Muslim mayor.
And Miss Ahmed has her own problems fighting for recognition within Jean-Pierre Chevenement's Citizens Movement Party. She says one local French politician refused to run with her in the May-through-June legislative race because of her ethnic background. Nonetheless, she still hopes to be on the party's list of candidates for legislative elections.