Asian Frenchman aims to stand out in Paris election

The Baltimore Sun

PARIS -- Felix Wu faces an uphill fight in today's election to govern a neighborhood that includes this city's Chinatown. As his name suggests, Wu is of Chinese descent and, indeed, he says he's running to represent the Asians of the 13th arrondissement, or district.

This might sound routine to Americans used to immigrants breaking into politics through their ethnic identity.

But in France, Wu is seen as a revolutionary - or more accurately, a counter-revolutionary.

For the more than 200 years since the French Revolution, this country has declared that distinctions of race or creed must be submerged for the good of France. Everyone is French, so no one campaigns as a representative of voters of Portuguese, Italian, African or Chinese heritage. The French are so committed to the idea of equality that it is against the law to survey the population about its racial, ethnic and religious origins.

No sooner had Wu, a 36-year-old restaurateur, begun plastering campaign posters of his boyish face across Chinatown than opponents accused him of being a "communitarian," a kind of political curse word in French culture for organizing along cultural lines.

Wu dismisses such a derogatory characterization. "The concept that we are all equal is denying the fact that we are all different," he said. "When a person looks at me on the street, he will see an Asian, not a French, even if I feel very French. So why should I try to hide the reality?"

Despite the burgeoning population of immigrants and their children from North Africa and Muslim countries, France has no black or Arab mayors and no minorities representing mainland France in the National Assembly. Even suburbs with high concentrations of voters of African, Arab or Chinese descent are run by the Franco-French.

When the French go to the polls this weekend for 36,781 municipal elections, almost two dozen candidates at the top of a ticket for the first time will be people of color or of immigrant descent.

But nowhere else in France - and certainly not in Paris, where in addition to a mayor of the overall city, each of its 20 arrondissements has a town hall and an elected mayor and council - is there another candidate talking in quite the same way as Wu about serving a distinctive ethnic community.

"I wanted to run for mayor [of the 13th] to show that Asians in France are different from what you think of us," he said. "I want to represent my community and serve it."

By saying that, Wu is violating a long-honored French tradition, says Philippe Maniere, director of the Montaigne Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "In France, we still believe in this completely idealistic principle born during our revolution that you should not talk about your community because it gives the impression you will favor it, which is unacceptable."

Maniere admits that politicians of Italian and Portuguese descent whose families came here in the 19th century have had less trouble getting elected than mid-20th-century immigrants who were black, Arab and Asian.

"Yes, sometimes people take our principles as an excuse not to admit they're racists," Maniere says. "But it is also sincere in the thinking of many French."

Wu sees the ideal but says he knows that for Asians there has been a different reality. "France has the biggest Chinatown in Europe, and after all these years the mayors have never given us a voice."

Last year, after a local paper quoted a resident in another area of Paris grousing, "You can't even buy a baguette in this area anymore," the local mayor enacted a law to block new Chinese wholesale clothing stores from opening, and nobody stepped up to defend Chinese interests, Wu says.

"We have no leader, no spokesman," he says. "And in today's media society when in no time a rumor becomes a truth, this is dangerous."

Clad in jeans, a black leather vest and a pinstripe blazer, with sunglasses tucked in his spiky brush-cut, Wu describes himself as a model of the modern, bicultural, entrepreneurial Asian Frenchman who hates the left's work-less mentality as much as the right's strict immigration policies.

"People like me can be the bridge between Europe and Asia," he says. "Instead, we are shut out."

Wu knows he doesn't stand a chance to be elected mayor of the 180,000-resident arrondissement on the southeastern edge of Paris. The best he hopes for is to get enough votes in the first round of voting today that another party will invite him on its ticket for the second round March 16 and he'll win a seat on the council that way.

But even if he falls flat today, Wu already deems his candidacy a success.

Not long after Wu's face appeared on those ubiquitous posters, suddenly, there were Asians on every major ticket in the 13th.

"The world," he says, "has changed. The battle is not hiding - it's in showing."

Geraldine Baum writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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