France’s Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, his popularity soaring, has thrown down the gauntlet to President Jacques Chirac, saying some form of affirmative action is essential to overcome the problems of the country’s ethnic minorities.
After three weeks of the worst urban violence to hit France for 40 years, Mr Sarkozy, one of very few French politicians to favour positive discrimination, said in an interview and in the Senate that “special measures” were needed to help young people of African origin find jobs.
Mr Chirac, in a televised address on Monday, ruled out such an approach. The principle that all its citizens are equal, regardless of race or religion, means France has long rejected affirmative action.
But Mr Sarkozy, buoyed by an opinion poll saying his approval rating had soared by 11 points since the rioting started on October 27, told the Senate that “some positive discrimination is needed to provide opportunities to France’s young”.
Violence continued for the 20th successive night, but police said the number of vehicles set on fire fell to a low of 163. A law extending anti-riot powers for three months was passed in Parliament.
Mr Sarkozy has called before for affirmative action to tackle high unemployment among minorities—one of the problems angering rioters in run-down suburbs. Many of them are of African and Arab origin.
The timing of his appeal, two days after Mr Chirac ruled out such steps in a televised address, underlined their differences.
“I challenge the idea that we all start at the same starting line in life,” Mr Sarkozy told L’Express magazine in an interview. “Some people start further back because they have a handicap—colour, culture or the district they come from. So we have to help them.”
Mr Sarkozy’s rise in popularity came despite widespread criticism of his allegedly inflammatory language and tough-guy approach to the rioting.
The minister referred to the troublemakers as “yobs” and “rabble”, and promised to “clean out” run-down suburbs “with a power hose”.
But public opinion has backed him. “It seems clear that while intellectuals, social workers, journalists and the left were offended, the man and woman in the street was not,” said one analyst, Pascal Perrineau. “They seem to appreciate Sarkozy talking to them in everyday language, which most French politicians never do.”
Wednesday’s survey, by the Ipsos group, showed the personal approval rating of the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin—who echoed Mr Sarkozy’s law and order stance but also announced a package of aid measures for the most depressed estates—had risen seven points to 62 per cent.
Ipsos said the higher support level for Mr Sarkozy was largely explained by his record popularity among far-right voters, 90 per cent of whom approved of his handling of the crisis. But his support also rose to a record 40 per cent among Socialist voters.
Far from hindering his presidential hopes, the unrest could advance them, allowing him to plead the necessity of a “clean break” with past policy, as well as with those, such as Mr Chirac and Mr de Villepin, who favour partial reforms.
French President Jacques Chirac called on companies and political parties to “better reflect” the country’s diversity and help fight discrimination, one of the issues at the heart of the recent wave of rioting.
“Companies and labor unions must get mobilized on the essential question of diversity,” Chirac said late yesterday in his first national televised national address since the riots began. “I ask leaders of political parties to take their share of responsibility.”
Almost 8,600 cars have been torched in the riots that began Oct. 27 in a Paris suburb and spread to cities across France. Measures such as curfews in some towns and bans on gatherings in Paris and Lyon have brought calm after more than two weeks of violence. About 2,700 people have been arrested.
The riots partly reflect tensions in neighborhoods where youth unemployment exceeds 30 percent and where sizeable Muslim communities reside in the largely Catholic country. While the provocation for the riots was the accidental death of two youths fleeing a police check, the violence reflects frustration of immigrants and their descendants who say they are discriminated against.
A white man with a French first and last name is five times more likely to be called in for a job interview than a man with a Northern African name with a similar resume, according to a 2004 study by sociologist Jean-Francois Amadieu and Adia, a Paris—based human resources consultant and temporary job company.
Chirac said France must acknowledge its diversity and fight discrimination, which “saps the foundation of our republic.” At the same time, he rejected the idea of introducing a quota system, calling it “unfair” for those who aren’t able to benefit from it.
National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said yesterday that measures will be taken to change recruitment patterns in the police and hire more people from ethnic minorities, as in countries such as the U.K.
“Our police must mirror the French society as it is in the year 2005,” Gaudin said. France, with a population of about 62 million, has one of the largest communities of immigrants of Arab origin in Europe, totaling about 5 million people.
Chirac yesterday also said he wants to extend the state of emergency and vowed to act “firmly” against those involved in the worst public unrest in the country since 1968.