Man In The Middle Of A Firestorm

As riots rage, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is feeling the heat for his tough policing tactics

Have the French riots sent Nicolas Sarkozy's political future up in smoke? More than any other politician in France, the hard-charging Interior Minister has been pilloried for his role in the recent unrest. Socialists and immigrant leaders have called for his resignation, saying that his hard-line policing tactics fueled tensions in immigrant neighborhoods. Some even accuse him of touching off the violence during a late October speech when he referred to young protesters as "riffraff." Even members of the center-right UMP party, which Sarkozy heads, have questioned his judgment.

A survey by French polling group IFOP on Nov. 3-4 showed Sarkozy's popularity at 44%, down from 49% before the riots. That raises the possibility that Sarkozy, until recently seen as the clear front-runner in the 2007 presidential race, could be elbowed aside by rival rightist Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose rating rose from 46% to 52% in the same poll.

But it's equally possible that the crisis could work to Sarkozy's advantage. His law-and-order rhetoric and his willingness to challenge political orthodoxy have made him a favorite with voters. Indeed, the IFOP poll also showed that 58% trusted Sarkozy to restore order in riot-torn communities. De Villepin's support is more fragile because of his close association with the unpopular lame-duck President Jacques Chirac.

There's no question that the 50-year-old Sarkozy is a polarizing figure -- even within the law enforcement community. In the late 1990s, France began opening small police stations in low-income neighborhoods in an effort to build trust with local residents. But after Sarkozy became Interior Minister in 2002, he dismantled the program because it had not produced a significant decline in crime. Instead, he introduced more aggressive measures, including frequent identity checks and questioning of young men in immigrant neighborhoods. "His is a policy of numbers and repression," says a police commander in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis that was the epicenter of the rioting. The commander spoke anonymously because police officers are forbidden to speak to the media.

But crime fell 3.4% during Sarkozy's first full year as Interior Minister -- and that record could serve him well in the presidential campaign. Voter concerns about crime were a key issue in the 2002 presidential elections, helping propel far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen into a runoff with Chirac. At the same time, Sarkozy will need to reassure moderates that he can "reinstate some sort of dialogue between the government and police and the rioters," says Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States, a Paris-based think tank.

Sarkozy recently has tried to reach out to minority groups by calling for affirmative-action programs, traditionally considered anathema in France. Even though many immigrant leaders support that idea, it's unlikely they'll rally around Sarkozy in the aftermath of the riots. But he has long had a knack for recovering from political setbacks. He and Chirac are bitter rivals, and the President has repeatedly tried to block his ascent. Just last year, Chirac forced Sarkozy out of the cabinet, only to invite him back a few months later under pressure from other center-right leaders. Sarkozy could yet find political advantage in the fear evoked by les violences.

By Carol Matlack in Paris

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.