France’s interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been accused of pandering to the extreme right in his campaign to become president by telling those who do not like the country that they can get out.
Speaking this weekend to 2,500 members of his ruling right-of-centre UMP party, he appeared to use the language of France’s anti-immigrant parties—a move that won applause. “If people don’t like being in France they only have to leave. We’ve had more than enough of always having the feeling that we must apologise for being French. We cannot change our laws our habits or our customs because they don’t please a tiny minority.”
His speech follows violence over planned employment laws, widespread rioting last November and recent polls showing that more French voters are turning to the National Front.
Philippe de Villiers, the leader of the nationalist Mouvement pour la France party, accused Mr Sarkozy of copying his slogan, France, you like it or leave it.
“The Sarko-show goes on,” he told Le Journal du Dimanche, adding: “Since he’s been in power what has he been waiting for to stop immigration, to expel Islamic extremists, to ban their activities linked to terrorism, to impose a republican charter for the building of mosques?
“How can he propose to finance them [mosques] with taxpayers’ money, suggest that foreigners be given the right to vote, positive discrimination and then try to wipe out all that with a catchy slogan.”
The riots in November and the recent debacle over the first employment contract, aimed at cutting youth unemployment, have left the government defeated and divided. The proposed contract sparked street protests, violence and student sit-ins until the government caved in and withdrew it. As a result Jacques Chirac’s popularity dropped 10 points and Mr de Villepin’s plunged by 13.
One poll by Sofres predicted that the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, could finish third in the first round of voting for France’s president next year. It put him behind Mr Sarkozy and Socialist contender Ségolène Royal but ahead of the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. In another poll by IFOP, more than a third of respondents said Mr Le Pen’s party was in tune with “the concerns of the French people”. Immigration was cited as a worry for 67% and security for 63%.
Christophe Barbier, deputy editor of L’Express magazine, said: “He [Le Pen] has profited from the riots and the protests. At the same time his rivals have been poaching his political territory with apparent success.”
At Saturday’s meeting Mr Sarkozy appeared to openly woo voters from the National Front and former Communist party supporters who have also turned to Mr Le Pen. “I hope they identify with us,” he said.”Why should I only speak to some electors . . . people should be happy that someone who leads a republican political party goes to find voters one by one to convince them that Le Pen is a dead end.”
Mr Sarkozy is championing tough new immigration laws which would make it more difficult for the poor and uneducated to start a new life in France. He has also announced that those who have spent 10 years in France will no longer be automatically granted the right to stay.
During Saturday’s speech to new UMP members Mr Sarkozy criticised Ms Royal, who has overtaken him in the presidential polls, berating her for a lack of ideas.
A poll in Le Figaro last week predicted that in a Ségo versus Sarko run-off, she would win with 51% of votes cast against 49% for him. However, 14% of those asked said they were undecided.