Sarkozy's immigration tough talk backfires
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's tough talk on Gypsies and immigrants faced a fierce backlash Monday, drawing fire from the right, the left and the Church while failing to boost him in the polls.
With two years to go before he seeks re-election and with his popularity at an all time low, Sarkozy has this month attempted to recapture the political initiative with a populist racially-tinged law and order message.
Police have begun rounding up and expelling Roma from Eastern Europe and dismantling unauthorised Gypsy campgrounds, while Sarkozy has threatened to strip some French but foreign-born criminals of their nationality.
Early opinion polls appeared to show that a majority of voters approved of the crackdown, but an initial surge of interest does not seem to have translated into a boost to the president's personal standing.
A poll by Viavoice for the daily Liberation showed Sarkozy's approval rating dipping back one point to 34 percent, his lowest score since winning election in 2007 on the back of strong law and order promises.
The same pollsters found that a majority of voters, 55 percent, would like to see one of Sarkozy's left-wing opponents win the presidency.
"All that for just that," said political scientist Jean-Luc Parodi, adding that while Sarkozy had won some support from backers of the far-right National Front, he had "shocked" most centrist and left-wing sympathisers.
"The shot was too powerful, and apparently badly aimed."
Meanwhile, France's race relations problems have drawn criticism from bodies as august as the Vatican and the United Nations. Scenting weakness, Sarkozy's rivals on the left and right have stepped up their criticism.
"There is today a stain of shame on our flag," former prime minister Dominique de Villepin -- who will probably challenge Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential race -- declared in an editorial for the Le Monde newspaper.
Accusing Sarkozy of violating France's constitution by treating foreign-born citizens differently from natives, Villepin accused the president of having committed a "moral fault" and exposing France to "national indignity".
Piling on in the same edition of Le Monde, one-time justice minister and former close Sarkozy ally Rachida Dati appealed for France to respect immigrants and their descendants as full citizens.
"We share the same values and same love for France," the Euro-MP of North African descent insisted, without directly referring to Sarkozy's threat to strip French nationality from certain categories of foreign-born criminal.
From the left, former Socialist premier Lionel Jospin accused Sarkozy of talking tough on law and order to disguise the fact that his government has in fact reduced police numbers by more than 9,000 in three years.
And, perhaps most worryingly for a president that has used his faith to appeal to traditionally conservative Catholic voters, Sarkozy is taking fire from Pope Benedict XVI and senior French churchmen.
Speaking on Sunday after his weekly Angelus prayer at his papal summer residence outside Rome, the pope called on French pilgrims "to educate your children to universal fraternity."
This followed more explicit criticism by the Vatican of Sarkozy's policy of deporting members of the Roma minority.
"One cannot generalise and take an entire group of people and kick them out," said Agostino Marchetto, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, a Vatican body.
Sarkozy's hardline interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, dismissed criticism from what he dubbed the "Parisian politico-media" elite and out-of-touch "billionaire left", but will have to handle the Church more carefully.
On Monday, Hortefeux agreed to meet the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, in the coming weeks to discuss the Church's concerns.
© 2010 AFP