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 Catholic 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 and 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 foreign-born French 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.
Political scientist Jean-Luc Parodi said 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," he said.
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 in the newspaper Le Monde.
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".
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.
Her article alluded to recent statements by Sarkozy in which he blamed immigration for crime and vowed to strip some foreign-born criminals of French nationality.
"The turn taken by the debate which followed the proposal by the president of the republic concerning the extension of the stripping of French nationality, is regrettable," wrote Dati, a Euro-MP of North African parentage.
"I regret that certain people have let themselves lump together immigration and crime," she added. "Let us stop pitting French people against one another."
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 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.
A French anaesthetist and humanitarian aid worker, Anne-Marie Gouvet, meanwhile said she would not accept France's highest decoration, the Legion of Honour, in January because of the government's policy.
"I cannot and will not be in any way be associated with a policy that has been implemented by your government towards the travellers (who are being) stigmatised for being about the only people responsible for the insecurity in this country which I dearly love," she wrote in a letter to Sarkozy.
A Roman Catholic priest active in defending Roma rights, Father Arthur, on Sunday refused a national medal of honour that he was in line to receive.
© 2010 AFP