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Presidential elections could bring the French closer together

France's presidential elections have highlighted the rift between the wealthy and the less fortunate. But the second ballot in early May could bring them together. Lisa Louis reports from Paris.

Life has been an uphill struggle for Jack Przepiorka. He's a son of immigrants - a Tunisian mother and a Polish father. And he lives in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, the country's most underprivileged area. More than a quarter of its residents live below the poverty threshold. Przepiorka is doubly stigmatized in elitist France - and well aware of it.

"When you're from the suburbs, you don't believe in yourself. You don't think you have the skills to go to university, because your parents haven't gone to university and don't have the right connections. You close all those doors yourself, without even trying," said the 24-year-old as he whacks a punching bag in a gym near his home in Aubervilliers. Przepiorka used to be the boxing champion of the Ile-de-France region.

And he's one of few who have fought his way up, not only in sports: He's was accepted to study at one of the country's most prestigious engineering schools.

No support from politicians

He had some help from the organization Passeport Avenir, which counsels about 6,000 young people from underprivileged suburbs like him each year. "Our tutors, who all have a business background, help them prepare entrance exams and get ready for a corporate world the youths hardly know," said Passeport Avenir's Sylvie Fernandes.

Read: Le Pen vs. Macron: Where they stand

Przepiorka didn't get help from politicians: "I wasn't even expecting them to help me succeed. Politics is like a reality TV show where they're playing chess instead of trying to help us," he said. 

Many of Przepiorka's friends in Seine-Saint-Denis feel the same. They all voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came fourth in the first ballot on May 23.

Jack Przepiorka hits a punching bag

Przepiorka has had to fight his way up from humble beginnings

They were charmed by the far-left candidate's anti-establishment approach, suggested Thomas Kirszbaum, sociologist at ENS Cachan University. "Melenchon had promised to take down the current political system and have the people come up with a new constitution."     

"He wanted to break with the current economic model that is benefiting a small minority in France," he said.

Twenty-two-year-old Boubou Semega, who was working out with Przepiorka that day, said Melenchon was the only acceptable option. Semega, who is taking a management course, hopes to one day open his own business. "Today's politicians completely neglect us and do everything except giving us jobs," he said.

"They are fooling us and embezzling public funds. And then, they dare patronize us, even though they are far from squeaky clean."

His friend Hamidi Diawara, who was doing push-ups next to Semega, couldn't agree more. The 40-year-old works as a courier. "It's like they live on another planet. They should at least try to understand us, but it seems impossible - they are just too far away. We have to take care of ourselves."

Different expectations of politicians

A few kilometers south, it's like another world. The 16th arrondissement in Paris is one of the most affluent parts of the capital. Benjamin De Kergorlay grew up here, in one of the chic buildings designed in Haussmann style. The 24-year-old was born into a wealthy family that could afford to send him to the very best schools. De Kergorlay, a student at a well-known engineering university, thinks people in the wealthy areas have different expectations of their politicians.

Benjamin De Kergorlay walks down the sidewalk in his Paris neighborhood

De Kergorlay was born into a wealthy part of Paris

"When you're from a well-off area, your aim is to stand on your own two feet. We try to pass entry exams for good schools and get good government jobs. We just want to work our way up," he said.

"In the suburbs, on the other hand, it seems that people need to rely more on the government to help them. They think that the state owes them something. Here in the wealthy areas, we think the state doesn't owe us anything at all."

Most of his friends are naturally inclined to vote for the center-right Republican party. It's a question of upbringing, De Kergorlay explained. "My parents are very suspicious of Jean-Luc Melenchon without ever having listened to him. On the other hand, they are very open-minded when it comes to the Republican Francois Fillon."

Read: France's election and the EU

But even wealthy people's trust in politicians has been shaken, especially since their candidate Fillon was embroiled in a financial scandal. He's accused, among other things, of having employed his wife and children in allegedly fake jobs - and paid them with public money.

That's why De Kergorlay cast his ballot for Emmanuel Macron in the first round of voting. The centrist's pro-business and pro-Europe approach appealed to him. His friend Vincent Capelle, a law student, also felt he could no longer support Fillon.

Voters queue to cast abllots in the first round of French presidential elections

Voetrs in wealthy parts of Paris expect different things of their politicians, De Kergorlay said

"It's not as if we felt closer to our politicians than the people from the left," Capelle stated.

"There is a grey area even we don't understand - and that makes us angry. In that sense, we are the same as people from the suburbs - even if we might vote for the other side of the political spectrum."

Bringing worlds closer

These two worlds - Seine-Saint-Denis and Paris' 16th arrondissement - seem very far apart. But they do sometimes come into contact. Przepiorka and De Kergorlay are friends. They go to the same school and often study together. They each feel they have learned something from the other.

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"Jack has reminded me of the fact that right-wing politicians often forget to talk about problems in the suburbs because very few people there vote for them. So how can these politicians then claim to represent everybody?" De Kergorlay wondered.

Przepiorka, on the other hand, has come to think there is an alternative to voting for the left wing. "Maybe it's time for someone like Emmanuel Macron who combines right-wing economic policies with left-wing social policies?" he asked.

"He understands young people a lot better than right- or left-wing politicians do. I think the divide between the right and left is going to disappear."

Both Przepiorka and De Kergorlay are hoping Macron will win the decisive run-off vote against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on May 7. That could finally bring their two worlds closer together.

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