Posted on November 16, 2005

Sarkozy Shines Amid Controversy

Alasdair Sandford, BBC News, Nov. 15

His name appears scrawled among the graffiti on housing estate walls in untranslatable terms.

Young people cite him as the cause of their troubles and demand his resignation.

He was pelted with bottles and stones in one Parisian suburb. On the Champs-Elysees he was jostled, booed and insulted.

Political opponents, religious leaders and newspaper columnists have accused him of aggravating the tension on the streets.

A fellow minister was scathing about him. His two bosses, the most senior men in France, are political rivals seeking to block his progress.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s language and tough stance on law and order have made him many enemies.

Yet the interior minister says he does not feel politically weakened.

Last weekend an opinion poll in one Sunday newspaper suggested that more than half of French people had confidence in his ability to bring solutions to the problems in the suburbs.

Another survey found many voters, even on the left, thought him “realistic” and “more than ever a potential presidential candidate”.

Stolen thunder

To some extent Mr Sarkozy has stolen the thunder from Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The Front National leader has looked on smugly while the government enacts measures that he himself has called for: curfews to quell the violence, and the expulsion of foreigners who take part in it.

Compared to the “Sarko Show”, the spectacle close to the Louvre on Monday was a sideshow.

Mr Le Pen had called for a large turnout for his rally. In fact only a few hundred die-hard supporters braved the cold to wave their flags and listen as he blamed “mad and criminal” mass immigration for the unrest.

People hurried home from work, ignoring the drone of the familiar themes as they echoed across the square.

There are signs though that the far right leader’s message is striking a chord with the wider French public.

Mr Le Pen’s popularity jumped five points in a recent poll for Paris Match.

“The Front National’s strategy is to wait for the media to repeat every day that these are ethnic riots, that most of the rioters are Muslim, and that the problem is with integration, not a social problem,” says political scientist Jean-Yves Camus.

Waning star

While the debate over the troubles raged, President Chirac remained largely silent.

For some people, his first direct address to the nation on Monday night was notable for two things.

Firstly, that it came two and a half weeks after the start of the violence. And secondly, that he was wearing glasses.

Far from being a nod to retro fashion — Mr Chirac wore even thicker rims in the 1970s — they took it as a sign that the president was losing his grip.

Ten years ago he came to power promising to heal France’s social divisions and the sense of “exclusion” felt by many young people.

Mr Chirac’s acceptance now that there still existed a “profound malaise” in the country’s poor suburbs was, for his critics, proof of his own failure.