French election: Getting the estate to vote in Marseille

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Meet the teenagers from Citizen Challenge.

Votes have no colour, religion or class, so why so few election posters in multi-ethnic La Busserine?

About 3,000 people (nobody seems to know for sure) are packed into this 1960s housing estate in northern Marseille and they have some serious issues.

Think "ghetto" and you are on the right track.

La Busserine is in the 14th Arrondissement, a district which made national headlines in 2014 when, together with the neighbouring 13th, it elected the city's first (sector-level) mayor from the far right National Front (more on that later).

Yet over two days, the only traces I found of this month's presidential election were a few posters for radical leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

But one group of first-time voters do not need posters because they have smartphones and can tell their Macron from their Hamon by actually reading their manifestos.

These daughters and sons of Comorans, Moroccans and other immigrants want to reconnect their neighbours to politics.

Oh and they are looking for a party of the other kind too.

Did someone say party?

Fifty areas in 34 towns and cities across France are competing to see who can reduce electoral abstention the most.

Citizen Challenge (in French) was launched in the deprived Strasbourg suburb of Neuhof after 80% of voters there stayed away from the first round of regional elections in December 2015.

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Razia Mohamed Zaki (centre) and Delphine Soumalia (sitting beside little Delyha) are also part of Citizen Challenge, along with Sarah Mmamdi (right)

A video (in French) which features kids daring adults to get out and vote for their future got more than 200,000 views on YouTube and abstention fell to 70% in the second round, Neuhof community centre director Khoutir Khechab explains.

He and his team are negotiating with public bodies and bands to come up with the prize: a concert in the winning area.

What's on people's minds?

Elections come and go but on the estate, a place full of children, people have been sinking under the same issues for years.

One issue comes around ten o'clock in the morning as the spotters emerge into the sun to watch over the estate's notorious hashish trade. Another emerges after dark when the réseaux (drug gangs) settle scores, sometimes with a kalash (Kalashnikov).

And morning, noon and night, the issues of unemployment and poverty hang over this community living 8km (five miles) from the luxury boutiques and restaurants of Marseille's Vieux Port (city centre).

Discrimination is also a live issue for the numerous Muslims here. Some 200,000 live in Marseille (population 855,393 as of 2013), according to French media.

"Muslims here are like disabled people," says a local shipyard worker of Algerian ancestry who does not want to be named.

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Bullet holes at an abandoned flat on the Flamants estate, adjacent to La Busserine

"If your name is Mohamed it's like you're missing an arm or a foot or a face. We're given all the hard work, the dirtiest work, the worst jobs."

People take some persuading, right?

"It's called a challenge because it's not easy," says French radio correspondent Stephane Burgatt, who followed the group around the flats of La Busserine in December.

"It's the kind of place where most people don't care about politics and don't know for whom to vote."

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A Citizen Challenge event in La Busserine last month brought in people from across Marseille

First-time voters Amal Osman, 18, Mohamed Abdallah, 19, and Sarah Mmadi, 18, are among a couple of dozen activists who went door to door persuading people to register to vote.

Today, equipped with props like a mock polling station, they focus on reminding voters in La Busserine (70% abstention at the regional elections) to actually use their ballots.

Do Muslims vote for the National Front?

The 14th, a working-class district, traditionally voted Communist or Socialist but in 2014 voters swung to the far right. Most of the Front's support came from outside the housing estates, among white voters.

However it is clear that some Muslims also voted for Stephane Ravier as their mayor despite his party's hard line on Islam and mass immigration, says Richard Ghevontian, a politics expert at Aix Marseille University.

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Professor Ghevontian says uncertainty over the election's outcome is unprecedented

"[Socialist President Francois] Hollande's policies disappointed many and Marriage For Everyone [the Socialists' same-sex marriage act of 2013, opposed by the National Front] greatly shocked Muslims, who are extremely conservative on social matters," he says, citing opinion surveys.

"It was a vote to punish Hollande," says a teacher in La Busserine, who does not want to be identified.

The shipyard worker, like nearly every voter I spoke to on the estate, is voting for Mr Mélenchon. "He tells the truth and a vote for him is a vote for peace with Muslims," he explains.

And three years under Mayor Ravier? "He does nothing for us but he leaves us alone," he says with a shrug.

What can Citizen Challenge really achieve?

France was once a model for voter turnout in the EU, says Professor Ghevontian, but in this election there is a real concern that abstention may rise.

If election campaigners do not go into places like La Busserine, it is because they have become no-go areas even for the police, he says.

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Marseille is France's second-biggest city

Yet the first-time voters keep up their campaign, encouraged by growing publicity for their cause and, crucially, the 100 or so people who registered to vote after talking to them.

"Citizen Challenge is good for the young because it gets them active and gives them a bit more value as human beings and citizens," says the teacher, "but our politicians live on another planet and they need to come back down to Earth."

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Patrick Housseini runs the estate's football team, AS Busserine

Will La Busserine win the concert? Street parties are an old and happy tradition in other parts of Marseille, with free concerts and kids' activities.

There is a real appetite on the estate for breaking out of the social isolation. AS Busserine football club inspires a loyal following and the Agora social centre runs clubs.

Sarah, who still remembers the fear of failure she felt as she knocked on her first door last year, says: "Our aim is to revive the area because the life went out of it."

"We got together to show the little ones that there is a good path and a bad path and they can choose the right one," says Amal. "Citizen Challenge lets them see the world of politics. It's only the beginning."

Graphics by Mike Hills and David Molloy

More on Patrick's Marseille assignment in this Twitter Moment.

Read more about France's presidential election