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Sharply divided worlds meet at Paris's Gare du Nord

The train station that symbolizes ethnic France was the scene of a riot last month.

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Gare du Nord rail station, where a racially tinged rampage erupted for eight hours in the middle of the French election season, is a symbol of cosmopolitan Europe in the heart of Paris. The high-speed Thalys and Eurostar trains connect to Brussels and London here. So do lines to Charles De Gaulle and Orly airports.

The station also symbolizes ethnic France: lines run straight to majority Arab-African suburbs, like that known as No. 93. Gare du Nord is a hangout for those groups, whose role has risen as elections veer to the question of "national identity," considered code for ethnic groups that can't or won't become "French." The issue has been little spoken of in the presidential vote, whose first round is April 22, but it has started to open a political and intellectual chasm in the French mind.

That silence changed March 28, when a Congolese illegal jumped a station turnstile at 4 p.m. Tall plastic shields had been affixed recently to the turnstiles, making the act highly visible, witnesses say. The man refused to pay a fine, was handled roughly, started screaming, and attracted a crowd of mostly black French, who first shouted epithets. Many were directed at conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, the former Interior minister who had just proposed a "Ministry of Immigration and National Identity." The fracas turned into a mob looting that lasted till 1 a.m. One commentator called it an outburst by "globalization's immigrants in France," though it lacked the intensity of nationwide suburban riots in late 2005.

Blacks and Arabs from No. 93 are now back at Gare du Nord. They want things to return to normal. "We like meeting friends and having coffee here … we like coming to Paris," says Guy, from the Ivory Coast. "It's nicer than the banlieues," as the suburbs are known.

Indeed, the station has been refurbished: The roof is open to the sky; multilayered platforms with palm trees, and wood floors; and shafts of sunlight illuminate shops sporting flowers, pastries, handbags, tennis shoes, and cellphones. It's a swirl of the fashionable and the undocumented, dreadlocked Africans and tourists wheeling suitcases, hip-hop kids and corporate suits, police in combat boots and discreet drug dealers – a bustle of dashing, people watching, and shopping.


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