ARGENTEUIL, France -- It is odd that Nicolas Sarkozy, the front-runner in France's presidential race, finds himself on the defensive in the immigrant slums that could play a key role in today's first-round election.
As France's top law enforcement official, the hard-charging Sarkozy spent a lot of time in the nation's tense housing complexes.
As a streetwise descendant of Hungarian and Greek-Jewish immigrants, he has a better instinctive understanding of those areas than most politicians, even some of his critics say.
But just before the riots that shook France in October 2005, Sarkozy paid a nocturnal visit to a grim housing complex in this industrial city on the northwest periphery Paris.
When a young mob hurled objects and insults at him, he responded with characteristically tough talk. Ever since, he has been the nemesis of restive street gangs - and the target of political rivals who call him dangerously divisive.
Whether the accusation is fair or not, Sarkozy has largely avoided housing complexes during the campaign for fear of new unrest. His opponents have exploited that vulnerability by campaigning in immigrant areas, where registration spiked during the past year.
New voters in the traditionally leftist bastions could help determine a tight race in which center-rightist Sarkozy, Socialist Segolene Royal, centrist Francois Bayrou and far-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen lead a field of 12 candidates for the May 6 runoff.
"It's true that after the riots of 2005, many young people accepted our appeal," said local Socialist leader Ali Ramdhane, a former city councilman who led a drive here that registered 7,200 new voters, a 15 percent increase. "In a way, Sarkozy helped us. Our slogan was, `Vote instead of vandalize.' We told the young people that their strength rested in their voter identification card. And they are the ones who are going to make the difference."
But Sarkozy's rivals might be simplifying matters. The 52-year-old has won admirers on France's toughest streets precisely because of his plain-spoken, pugnacious attitude and his crime-fighting record as interior minister, experts say. And his feud with a relatively small population of youths enhances his popularity with older, more conservative voters, they said.
Although the police official disagrees with Sarkozy's politics, he said the candidate is one of the few leaders with a keen insight into the brew of crime, poverty, alienation and Islamic extremism in the slums. Sarkozy resigned as interior minister recently to run for president.
A pro-Sarkozy youth leader in Argenteuil said he respects the candidate because he has a longtime record of visiting underprivileged areas, where he emphasizes hard work, upward mobility and equal opportunity.
"What happened here with the youths who want to derail Nicolas Sarkozy is not representative of what's happening in the banlieu," said Tarek Moudane, 27, who used the French term for the industrial housing complexes. "In fact, those were youths who don't vote and don't have the slightest notion of the political world."
Nationwide, voter registration has increased from about 41 million to 45 million since the last presidential vote in 2002.
Sarkozy has an apparently strong lead and is expected to qualify with ease for the runoff, according to most polls and political analysts. Royal looks likely to come in second, setting up a showdown between the two big parties, the polls suggest.
But no one rules out surprises. Many voters remain undecided, pollsters say. The electorate in first-round elections is volatile and inclined to cast protest votes. Five years ago, the hapless Socialists were upset by Le Pen, who then lost to the center-right.
Le Pen retains a solid following with his angry rhetoric about defending France against immigrants. But this year's wild card is Bayrou. A former education minister of the center-right, he attracts moderate leftists with promises of a tolerant, pragmatic government that transcends ideology.
Royal, meanwhile, has had to fend off the perception that her inexperience and gaffes on foreign policy issues weakened her and fomented divisions in her party. Two popular Socialist leaders went as far as urging her to consider an alliance with Bayrou.
Socialist operatives predict that the left will dig in to avoid a catastrophic repeat of the elimination in 2002.
Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.