Riots inflict damage on Sarkozy's ambitions

3rd November 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 3 (AFP) - A week of nighttime rioting in suburbs around Paris has inflicted heavy damage not only in terms of the hundreds of cars torched and properties vandalised -- but also for the political aspirations of France's hardline interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

PARIS, Nov 3 (AFP) - A week of nighttime rioting in suburbs around Paris has inflicted heavy damage not only in terms of the hundreds of cars torched and properties vandalised -- but also for the political aspirations of France's hardline interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy, 50, has made no secret of his ambition to succeed Jacques Chirac in presidential elections to take place in 2007.

In pursuit of that goal, he has carved out a reputation as a brash straight-talker looking to triumph through determination and the embrace of tough US-style police tactics that contrast with what he sees as a too-soft French approach that previously reigned.

For a while, his dynamic methods -- introducing speed radars, deploying more police patrols to tough neighbourhoods, expediting court judgements against offenders, widening police surveillance powers, cracking down on illegal immigration, clearing out squatters -- worked, sending him to the top of popularity polls of an electorate which has long put insecurity at the head of its list of concerns.

But now that same bullheaded stance has turned the public perception against him, with critics blaming his repressive orders and rhetoric for fanning the riots.

A week before the violence started, Sarkozy vowed to wage a "war without mercy" on deliquents in the suburbs. Days later, he called rebellious youths living in the neighbourhoods "rabble".

When the riots exploded -- sparked by the accidental electrocution October 27 of two suburban teenagers hiding in an electrical sub-station to flee a police identity check -- those words came to haunt him.

A junior minister in charge of equal opportunities, Azouz Begag, slammed Sarkozy's language and his habit of going to poor neighbourhoods with media in tow.

"You mustn't tell young people they're 'rabble'. You mustn't tell young people we're going to get you and stick the police on to you. You have to go in there with the idea of calming things down," Begag said at the weekend.

The families of the dead teenagers refused an invitation to talk with Sarkozy, calling the minister "very incompetent".

But Sarkozy, never one to back down, defended his stance, saying they were real terms employed by ordinary people, and not the wooden language usually heard from politicians.

"The political class is heard less and less... because when it talks, it doesn't use real words," he told Le Parisien newspaper.

"I speak with words that the French understand," he also told Europe 1 radio.

Now, with violence raging north, east and west of Paris in nightly confrontations between riot police and stone-throwing gangs, Sarkozy is struggling to be seen in charge despite the intervention of prime minister Dominique de Villepin.

Villepin -- whom Chirac is seen to be grooming as his nominated successor -- and Sarkozy have long had a strained relationship, though both are making efforts to hide those tensions behind a united government front while tackling the riots.

Villepin, who briefly held the interior ministry portfolio before becoming prime minister in June, told parliament that "the government will ensure public order and will do so with the necessary firmness," and said he was counting on Sarkozy to "take the necessary measures."

Both men cancelled overseas trips to stay in France and address the violence in the suburbs.

Early Thursday, they, and several other ministers and ruling party legislators, held a working breakfast at Villepin's office to discuss the situation.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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