French Rappers Get Out the Ghetto Vote in Presidential Election

Rappers, known for their bad boy image and troubles with the law, are getting down in France's ghettos with a new kind of tune: vote in next month's presidential election.

Connecting with young voters in a way no school or politician can, they feel confident that youths in France's depressed housing projects can mark the election outcome — and are encouraging them to make their ballot count.

Rost, 30, a black rapper born in Togo — who is not even French — published a "Guide for Voters" this week, a primer to explain the basics of France, citizenship and the right to vote to project dwellers, most of immigrant origin like himself.

It contains the words of the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise," and interviews with candidates.

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"Lots of people think rappers are just inciting hate," Rost said. "The problem isn't us. We're just the thermometers, we take the temperature."

Rappers, in their songs, foretold of the riots that for three weeks in the fall of 2005 tore up housing projects that surround French cities. They also have been taken to court by lawmakers and the Interior Ministry for lyrics seen as an insult to France or an incitement to attack police. The rappers have won each time.

For the election, a handful of rappers like Rost have turned the bad boy image on its head, using their music and their appeal to coax ghetto youth who have never voted to cast a ballot in the two-round polls April 22 and May 6.

"We're not going to resolve the problems by tomorrow, but voting is a start," Rost said.

Sociologist Sylvia Faure, author of "Culture hip-hop, jeunes des cites et politiques publiques" (Hip-Hop Culture, Project Youth and Public Policies), said that rappers, like photographers, capture moments of life in the neighborhoods and "act as a relay," too.

"The young don't know how to make themselves heard. Rappers play with the language and so can be their spokesmen," she said in an interview.

They recount the hard-knocks life of project kids, the discrimination they suffer as "second-zone citizens" and what they feel is their confiscated identity. Songs like Monsieur R's "FranSSe," in which he calls the country a 'bitch,' have put rappers in court.

Last year, civic-minded rappers moved into the spotlight, taking part in drives to get project youth to register to vote.

The Interior Ministry on Tuesday announced a 4.2 percent jump in voter registrations, the most since 1981. Some of the sharpest increases were in Paris suburbs with housing projects and where rappers and associations have been especially active. Voter registration rose 8.5 percent in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of northern Paris, where the 2005 riots started.

Axiom, a rapper of Moroccan origin born in the northern city of Lille, began singing about injustice in poor neighborhoods after a friend was killed by police in 2000.

"There are lots of us now," he said in a telephone interview. "When I began I had the impression I was alone. Now, it's entered into the [rap] culture. It's an excellent thing."

Axiom, 32, whose real name is Hicham Kochman, gained a national profile after the riots with his "Ma Lettre Aux President" (My Letter to the President) on the Internet. It recounts how his grandparents "defended France during the war," how his working-class parents "helped rebuild this republic" and how he has suffered "30 years of racism and ignorance."

None of the rappers is saying how to vote — although Rost plans to make an endorsement before the election. Front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy of the governing right clearly won't be his choice.

Few in the projects have forgotten Sarkozy's reference to troublemakers as "scum" in 2005 when he served as interior minister, a post he stepped down from Monday to focus full-time on his campaign. Rost said he considers Sarkozy "more dangerous" than extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Rost's "Guide for Voters" provides interviews with candidates who agreed to talk to him, including Socialist Segolene Royal, ranked No. 2 in polls, Francois Bayrou, No. 3, and even Le Pen. Among those missing is Sarkozy, who, Rost said, rejected the interview format with video and photos.

"This France, It's Also Ours" read Rost's T-shirt, the slogan of an association he co-founded, "Banlieues Actives" (Active Neighborhoods).

But Rost will not be among those voting on election day. He has lived in France since the age of 10 and "feels French" but has yet to gain French citizenship.

"It's OK," Rost said when asked if he regrets not being able to cast a ballot. "The others will do it for me."

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