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France: The Palace Provocateur

5 minute read
James L. Graff/Paris

In a country where politicians generally prefer evasion to bluntness, Nicolas Sarkozy makes a point of being an anomaly. As mobs of disaffected youths rampaged through the streets across France again last week, the Interior Minister projected an air of tough-guy bravado, using ghetto epithets to condemn the rioters, daring them to take him on. When he appeared at a televised town-hall meeting, Sarkozy took umbrage at what he deemed the insolent tone of a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt and shaved head–“We are not in the street here,” Sarkozy said–but refused to apologize for his own use of the derogatory term racaille, or scum, to describe the delinquents of France’s blighted suburbs. In fact, he used it again. “Thugs and scum,” he said, when asked who was behind the violence. “I stand by it, and I underline it.”

How Sarkozy, 50, carries out that pledge may determine France’s political future. While the fires in the working-class immigrant suburbs seemed to be subsiding last week, the government’s ineffectual response to the violence has stirred nearly as much public outrage as have the rioters. French President Jacques Chirac, who was re-elected in 2002 in part on his promise to address the problem of “insecurity,” especially in the banlieues, or suburbs, remained astoundingly absent as Paris burned. The weekly Nouvel Observateur called him the “phantom of the Elysée.” The riots had raged for more than a week before he made a brief, uninspiring call for calm on Nov. 6, then spoke of the troubles again in a press conference on Nov. 10. Chirac’s aides insisted that it was he who encouraged his protégé, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, to invoke a law allowing local authorities to set curfews, but most of the government’s announced measures in deprived areas have been tried before with scant success.

That left the stage open for Sarkozy, who is already running hard to succeed Chirac as President in 2007. As his colleagues dithered, Sarkozy, the son of Hungarian immigrants, thrust himself to the center of the crisis. He proudly states that he has been out in the banlieues every night since the trouble began. While de Villepin, who is seen as Sarkozy’s main rival in 2007, struck a conciliatory tone, Sarkozy called last week for the immediate deportation of any foreign citizens convicted of taking part in the violence. He pointedly rejected the idea that government neglect of the banlieues was the chief cause of the riots. “It’s not just unemployment, injustice and racism,” he said on television. “It’s fear generated by gangs that live from drugs and stolen cars.”

That hard line has earned Sarkozy the scorn of the French left as well as that of youths in the neighborhoods where the violence erupted. “I will slit his throat or shoot him with a Kalashnikov–no matter how, I’ll kill him,” says Osman, 14, to nods of approval from his middle-school classmates in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. But Sarkozy has also tapped into a craving for law and order within the French mainstream, which has recoiled at the rioters’ defiance of the authorities. The rioters torched more than 7,500 cars in some 300 cities and towns throughout France and caused an estimated $235 million in damage. A poll in the newspaper Le Figaro published last week showed that 56% of the public supported Sarkozy’s handling of the crisis. “Sarkozy’s language is understood perfectly well by the modest folk of this country,” says Nadine Morano, a member of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement who grew up in the tough Cèdre Bleu housing project of Nancy. “He’s the only real alternative for changing this country, and even the left knows it.”

Sarkozy has certainly made no secret of his ambitions. When asked last year if he thought of the presidency while shaving in the morning, he replied, “Not just when I’m shaving.” Sarkozy has based his appeal on a vow to cause a “rupture” with the way France has been run for the past 30 years. He criticizes France’s 35-hr. workweek and calls for economic liberalization instead of the traditional welfare-state model to which Chirac, de Villepin and the socialist opposition pay fealty. At the same time, not all his positions are easily swallowed by the right. He has advocated a more aggressive policy of “positive discrimination” for immigrant populations and has even advocated giving foreigners the right to vote in local elections.

Some observers say Sarkozy’s operatic style could haunt him. In a kind of public drama rarely heard of in the circumspect world of French politics, Sarkozy’s wife Cecilia dumped him for another man last summer and is about to publish a tell-all book. “France is a conservative country,” says political scientist Dominique Reynié, “and Sarkozy causes conflict and perturbation at every turn.” France may prefer its politicians decorous, its weekends long and its conflicts discreet. But after the shocking depredations of recent days, Sarkozy is betting that his compatriots are ready to get tough.

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