Party crasher

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am

Felix Wu is a third-generation Frenchman who runs his family's Chinese restaurant and only registered to vote a few years ago. Now he wants to be mayor of Chinatown in eastern Paris.

Mr Wu is the first Chinese-Frenchman - and the first Asian - to head an electoral list in France. With the first round of municipal elections to be held tomorrow, his quixotic campaign has already shaken up the political establishment. 'My personal baggage is almost completely French,' he said. 'But when people look at me, they see me as an immigrant or somehow not totally French.'

Running as an independent at the lead of what he called a 'diversity list', the 36-year-old Mr Wu said he hoped to empower the Asian community in France and improve its overall image.

'My candidacy is the only way to give an electric shock to the system,' he said.

With his spiky haircut and jeans, Mr Wu is an anomaly in the clannish world of French politics. He is a successful entrepreneur, not a career politician. He did not come up through the ranks of the mainstream parties. And if he wins a council seat in his Paris district, or the mayor's job, he will be the first person of Chinese background to hold elective office.

'The parties here are fossilised,' said Mr Wu, in his tiny campaign office in the heart of Chinatown. 'I'm running as an independent because there was no possibility for an Asian to head a list.'

He said he had no interest in joining one of the mainstream political parties, although he would stand a better chance of being elected under the proportional representation system if he did so. Local government should not be about dogma, said Mr Wu.

'We need a good manager,' he said. 'There's no ideology to cleaning up dog excrement in the neighbourhoods. You just need to do it efficiently.'

Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (administrative districts), each with its own elected council and mayor. Mr Wu is running in the 13th arrondissement, where Chinese immigrants have been concentrated for more than 30 years.

He said at least 15 per cent of the eligible voters were Asian, basing his estimate on a study of the family names on the voter rolls.

Mr Wu said he was running as the candidate for Asians in the district, but not as an Asian candidate.

It is a distinction that is both delicate and necessary in France.

In public life, claiming an ethnic identity is frowned upon. It is even illegal to collect statistics based on national origin, ethnicity or race.

Non-whites, no matter how long their families have lived in France, are commonly labelled 'of immigrant origin' rather than, say, black or Asian.

Nevertheless, Mr Wu's campaign has focused on his Chinese heritage. He presents himself as a defender and representative of a maligned Asian minority in France.

'Asians see themselves as very much under attack these days,' he said. 'The media is promoting the idea that all the economic ills of the world are the fault of China. Every time a factory moves its operations outside of France, it's blamed on the Chinese. This stigmatises all Asians.'

In the past few years, anti-immigrant sentiment has grown. President Nicolas Sarkozy has created a new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity and has set quotas for the arrest and expulsion of illegal immigrants.

Mr Wu said the atmosphere of suspicion had upset the lives of Asians and other 'visible minorities' in France. He has been stopped several times by police officers demanding his identity papers.

'People have come to believe that illegal immigrants only come from Africa and Asia,' he said. 'They have stigmatised the only ones that can be easily deported - the visible minorities - so we've become a target for the police.'

His candidacy resonates with Asians. 'Everyone knows someone in detention or someone who has been stopped for an identity check by the police,' he said.

What drove Mr Wu to wade into politics was a programme on French television last year that talked of an 'Asian mafia' and claimed Chinese immigrants were not interested in assimilating. He said he had asked various anti-racism groups to launch a formal protest but they refused to take up his argument that Asians had been smeared.

Until now, he said, the Asian community in France had kept to itself and failed to get involved in politics. But it should follow the lead of other minorities, such as Muslims and blacks, which had created national lobby groups.

'We Asians have an enormous amount of catching up to do with other minorities in terms of organising ourselves and creating representative structures,' he said. 'There is still today this myth that Chinese restaurants serve dog meat. We are attacked and we are obliged to respond quickly. With the power of the media and the internet now, if we don't respond to these attacks right away, they will become accepted truths. So we have to participate fully in political life.'

Mr Wu's maternal grandfather was born in a town near Nanjing and travelled widely before settling in France, where he opened a restaurant in the industrial Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. Mr Wu's father, also a chef, migrated to France from Shanghai by way of Taiwan.

At the age of 18, Mr Wu set up his first business, arranging special events for discotheques. He then started a chain of sushi restaurants and an Italian eatery in a posh Paris neighbourhood before returning to the family restaurant near the Gare de Lyon railway station. He has travelled through Asia and the French Pacific territories for various business ventures.

His election platform calls for making the Parisian Chinatown, one of the biggest single concentrations of Asian people in Europe, a visible and revamped tourist destination. No signs now mark the borders of the neighbourhood. Mr Wu said he wants to erect colourful gates to distinguish Chinatown and to actively solicit new businesses to invigorate its economy.

Mr Wu faces an uphill battle in the municipal elections. His district voted heavily Socialist in last year's presidential elections and the present mayor and council majority in the arrondissement are Socialists.

Rarely do independents succeed in bucking the mainstream parties in French elections. Nor have minority candidates, whether they are women or non-whites, moved into positions of political prominence.

Only 18 per cent of parliamentarians are women and only 11 per cent of France's mayors, the lowest proportion in Europe.

So Mr Wu's list of candidates stands out. It includes six Asians: two of Vietnamese origin, two of Cambodian origin and two of Chinese origin. It also includes people of North African, African and Armenian origin.

One of the candidates is Niamoye Diarra, a Frenchwoman of African heritage who was elected to a council seat in Mr Wu's district in the last municipal elections on the Socialist Party ticket. She said she had joined Mr Wu's list 'because the big parties treat minorities just as decoration, like potted plants'.

If his list does not succeed in winning at least 5 per cent of the total number of votes cast in the district in the first round of voting, it will be automatically eliminated. If it wins 10 per cent or more of the votes in the first round, it will qualify to run in the runoff.

If it wins between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the popular vote, it will have the right to negotiate a deal with one of the mainstream parties to include some of its candidates on a combined list.

Mr Wu said he was not interested in making any deal with either the Socialists or Mr Sarkozy's right-wing Union for a Popular Movement.

'For us as independents, we want to stay independent to the end,' he said. 'Maybe this campaign will be the start of something else.'