Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Political fallout from the French riots

The IHT's John Vinocur sees Interior Minister Sarkozy as the near-term loser. I had Sarkozy coming out ahead with his forceful law and order talk (now backed up by polls), but the French politicians are seeking to take him down a peg or two. In a lengthy article, Vinocur explains:
[...] It is Nicolas Sarkozy's survival as a political force with heathen ideas about how France can escape its Holy Writ (chanted both left and right) of non-solutions to an existence that's added endangered civil peace to its constants of no growth and no jobs.

If there was a single subtext unifying the political establishment during the early days of flame and street battling here, it was the idea that the riots could become the black mark of death on Sarkozy's presidential ambitions in 2007.

The rickety, squabbling left leapt to the kill, calling his in-your-face vocabulary incendiary to the Arab and African Muslim immigrants on the streets of France's housing projects. This, while the Jacques Chirac/Dominique de Villepin front, Sarkozy's feigned allies in the government, let him dangle as a fall guy for the troubles.

Now, a couple of weeks later, and after incomplete success in putting down the unrest - as interior minister, Sarkozy holds direct responsibility for the police, security and aspects of immigration policy - he continues, basically intact, as the country's one-man, self-projected political alternative.

It turns out that the French approve of his approach to the troubles by a 56 percent to 40 percent margin. More than 70 percent also agreed that last Wednesday's declaration of a state of emergency was the right way to go. And a poll on Sunday designated Sarkozy (ahead of Villepin and the rest of the country's politicians) as the man best able to cope with the issues surrounding the rioting.

In fact, Chirac's office, trying to prop up a president described as groggy and anesthetized-looking by members of his own party, wound up claiming by the end of the week that the tough stuff and curfew decision was really the boss's handiwork. [...]
An aside: I watched most of Chirac's speech last night. I felt he did a fine job. He took the philosophic route, which goes over well with the French, and was very presidential.

Sarkozy has not lost a handhold on an electorate that could make him president. His assertion that the French social model has become a sham functions as a workable political premise. And most significantly, he will not implode into an unelectable bigot or traitor to Frenchness when he insists immigration from North Africa and Black Africa means both specific French demands on those immigrant communities, and new thinking here on race, culture, and religion as elements of integration.

That's to say affirmative action, direct cash-support for Islam to bring potentially fundamentalist congregations out of cellars and abandoned garages, and some voting rights for foreigners.

Sarkozy's landing on his feet has hardly overjoyed the political class. The reason: because it suggests the riots show there can be answers acceptable to the French - from vast job market and economic reform to positive employment quotas for Muslims - that might overwhelm la pensée unique, or the all-dominant, one-track political thought process that preserves the failed French social model. [...]

At the points where Sarkozy collides with populism, expediency, or the execution of shoot-from-the-hip proposals that have more to do with packaging than content, his limitations jar. Example: his headline-making order to expel foreigners arrested for rioting stands little practical chance for application under the strictures of French immigration law. [...]

In a long television appearance late last week as the riots calmed, he went plain simplistic on their cause.

Of course, there were "the structural reasons" of 40 years of other politicians' failed programs. But essentially, Sarkozy focused blame on a small minority of hoodlums who, he said, through drug-dealing and extortion, and now rioting, created a climate of such fear that it banished all hope from the housing projects.

This tack took an easy, voter-friendly pass on the overall responsibility of French racism, largely directed at the Arab population. And it swerved away from the issue of how some of the Muslims living in France resist or reject assimilation.

Still, this tactic provided Sarkozy with a seemingly successful counter to what many hoped would kill him politically.
There is another page to the article which goes into the details of his TV appearance and the political efforts to squelch him.

The guy is a political adept, and people seem willing to follow his arguments. At the moment he is France's best hope for a break with the failed policies of the past.