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Paris politician introduces ethnicity into municipal race

The concept is foreign to a culture that believes every citizen is above all French.

March 09, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

Clad in jeans, a black leather vest and a pinstriped 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 political left's alleged work-less mentality as much as the right's strict immigration policies.

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

Born in Paris and a product of public schools, Wu started out working for his parents, who had opened a restaurant after years working in factories. At age 20, he began managing parties at nightclubs and in 1997 moved to Hong Kong to learn more about his heritage. He returned to France a year later, to again be in a place that respected individuality, he said.

Although he had never voted, he was inspired to run for office after the election last year of President Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant.

But Wu was disappointed that Sarkozy failed to appoint Asians to his "rainbow" Cabinet, which has a black woman, three Muslims and several Socialists.

"After seeing the 'family picture,' I realized someone was missing -- and it was me," Wu said.

So he borrowed money from his skeptical parents and declared his candidacy under a new party and found 37 other candidates for the slate. About 20% are Asian, the same percentage as that of Asian residents in the 13th district.

His first proposal was to transform Chinatown into a cultural center, dressing it up with "gates at the entry just like in Los Angeles," he said.

Jerome Coumet, the incumbent mayor, was appalled. A member of the Socialist Party, which dominates town halls across Paris, Coumet said his party had dutifully served the community and tried unsuccessfully for years to find an Asian to be on its slate.

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 today that another party invites him on its ticket for the second round March 16, and he wins a seat on the council that way.

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

Not long after Wu's face appeared on those ubiquitous posters, Coumet was suddenly able to find an Asian willing to run on the Socialist ticket. And suddenly there were Asians on every major ticket in the 13th, including Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement party.

"It's a small thing, but I'm so proud of what I did," Wu said. "Just because I had a poster, with my face, I showed that Asians in France are different than what people think of us, you know, the little guy in the high-collared jacket selling spring rolls.

"The world has changed. The battle is not hiding; it's in showing."



Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.

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