France's "Sarko" Is in the Spotlight

The new Interior Minister has flair--and presidential hopes

Trailed by a swarm of television cameras, Nicolas Sarkozy sweeps into a meeting hall in the drab Paris suburb of Rosny-sous-Bois. The 48-year-old French Interior Minister is speaking at a convention on crime victims' rights. The meeting quickly turns into a lovefest. As Sarkozy works the room after his speech, Genevieve Celant, leader of a victims' group based in the town of Frejus in Provence, says: "He's young, he's energetic, he keeps his promises. People on the left and the right--all have confidence in him."

Eight months after stepping into the the country's top law enforcement job, Sarkozy has become the man to watch in French politics. "Sarko," as he's popularly known, makes headlines almost daily with a whirlwind of activity, from fighting crime and terrorism to defusing labor crises and overseeing disaster relief in flood-stricken areas. His approval rating stands at 61%, on a par with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's and a few points above President Jacques Chirac's. Sarkozy brushes off questions about his political ambitions. "I'm only doing my job," he says.

Make no mistake, though: The Interior Minister has his eye on the 2007 presidential race. He is honing a new style of politicking that could give him an edge over potential rivals. Although he belongs to Chirac's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Sarkozy is styling himself as an independent pragmatist who shuns ideology and behind-the-scenes dealmaking. Last fall, for instance, he helped head off a nationwide truckers' strike by threatening to revoke the strikers' drivers' licenses--an unusually hardball tactic in strike-prone France.

Indeed, for many of his 26 years in politics, Sarkozy has battled criticism that he is too zealous and hard-edged. Yet those traits are assets in his new crime-fighting role. Plus Sarkozy offers a Clintonesque personal touch that's unusual in French politics, holding emotional private meetings with crime victims and spending holidays hanging around police stations. "He speaks a new kind of political language--more direct, with a strong emotional dimension," says Francois Miquet-Marty, director of political studies for the Louis Harris polling group in France.

It's a vernacular voters understand-- even if Sarkozy hails from the ritzy Paris suburb of Neuilly and hobnobs with the likes of Bernard Arnault, the French luxury tycoon. Polls show two-thirds of the population backing Sarkozy's policies. His trump card is public fear over crime, a key issue in last year's general elections. Already, he has pushed through legislation to hire thousands more police officers while stepping up raids on suspected terrorist groups. He also shut down a refugee center near Calais that had been a longtime magnet for illegal immigrants hoping to slip across the English Channel.

Yet this son of a Hungarian refugee has distanced himself from the xenophobic positions of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Far Right leader who made immigration and crime the centerpieces of his presidential race last year. Sarkozy has promised to streamline procedures for legalizing the status of immigrants already in France. He also has cultivated ties with the country's large but politically neglected Muslim minority. "His predecessors never made such an effort to reach out to us," says Fouad Alaoui, Secretary General of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France.

Sarkozy's path to the presidency will be paved with obstacles, of course. He has already ignited controversy with his proposed revision of the criminal code. Human-rights and church groups have raised objections to tougher penalties on loitering and squatting as well as limits on some forms of public speech, such as cursing at policemen. And while Chirac is expected to retire in 2007, his pal Alain Juppe is mulling his own presidential bid. The former Prime Minister and current UMP leader displays none of Sarkozy's populist flair. But, says a longtime rightist politico: "He's just waiting for Sarko's first mistake."

In the meantime, Sarkozy has plenty to keep him busy. He's trying to defuse a political separatist movement on the island of Corsica and investigating an oil spill off the coast of Spain that has soiled some of France's Atlantic Coast. With Sarko on the track, France's next presidential campaign could be a heckuva race.

By Carol Matlack in Paris

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