The Parisian provocateur

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy fueled the riots by insulting France's impoverished youth. Is he also their best hope for change?

Published November 15, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

On Oct. 27, at 6:12 p.m., when two boys named Ziad Benna and Bouna Traoré were electrocuted in a power substation as they were fleeing from the police in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, Nicolas Sarkozy, 50, was being driven through the immaculate rolling hills of Lorraine.

He had been on the road since early that morning, and by evening his motorcade of slate-gray limousines was winding its way through one of the year's last summerlike days. Sarkozy had toured a factory near Metz and given a speech at a cultural center in Freyming-Merlebach -- both part of his grand plan to become France's president.

As the French interior minister made his way through the eastern French countryside, there was little indication that violent riots would soon erupt throughout France. This despite the fact that Sarkozy had been quoted in Le Monde only two days earlier as saying that 9,000 police vehicles -- an average of 20 to 40 a night -- had been torched in France since January. The death of an 11-year-old boy caught in the crossfire between warring suburban drug gangs had been on the public's mind for weeks, especially after Sarkozy's insensitive remark, meant for the mourning father of the child, that many of the suburbs needed "to be cleaned up with a pressure washer."

Sarkozy was driven to Pont-à-Mousson. The small town's largest auditorium had been reserved for his appearance -- a thousand-seat facility on the edge of an industrial area and adjacent to discount supermarkets Aldi and Intermarché. The region's dignitaries had assembled on the stage to welcome the honored guest from Paris, some even wearing ceremonial garb complete with sashes in the colors of the French flag.

The event was being sponsored by the UMP, France's conservative ruling party, which had been established three years ago as a platform for the reelection of French President Jacques Chirac. It has, though, since strayed from its original mission. Within a year, Sarkozy became chairman and grabbed control of the party -- or "movement" as the party itself would have it -- and with his charisma has already managed to recruit 60,000 new members since January. His entrance into the auditorium was nothing short of triumphant.

At approximately 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 27 -- just as Sarkozy was giving his speech in faraway Lorraine -- the first car was being set on fire in Clichy-sous-Bois, 350 kilometers away in Paris. The fire began near a concrete housing project called Chêne-Pointu -- and a process began that would soon yield television images depicting street scenes in the country's most impoverished suburbs that could just as easily have transpired in places like Baghdad, Lagos or Port-au-Prince. In his speech, Sarkozy spoke informally and effusively about the values of the French republic. He had no idea how soon these values would be called into question.

"It cannot be, my friends, that the grandchildren of the first generation of immigrants are not as well-integrated as their grandparents," Sarkozy told his audience. "We must bring an end to the division of our country, we must put an end to this talk about real and inauthentic Frenchmen, and we must wake up after 30 years of failed policies. Today, anyone who wants to be French is a Frenchman, no matter how long he has been in the country, and no matter where he came from."

The speech was classic Sarkozy. Indeed, he delivers any one of endless variations on the same speech whenever he appears. He seems to have memorized about a dozen passages, each on a different topic, and has become adept at configuring and reconfiguring these passages to suit his needs and his audiences, constructing a platform that defies all labels.

There are passages in Sarkozy's speeches that could easily have been uttered by a communist, passages in which he demands what he calls a "rupture" and an open, just society, one in which 10 percent of households are no longer permitted to enjoy 40 percent of the country's wealth.

And when he gets agitated over the barriers faced by the children of blue-collar workers and immigrants, over their lack of access to the "social elevator," over their being forced to do their homework in stairwells because their parents' apartments are too small to accommodate a desk, he sounds like a left-leaning socialist.

But then, when justifying his brutal deportation policies -- when he asks why it should be a human rights violation to deport a Senegalese to Senegal, when he urges the police to engage in merciless repression, when he ridicules social work as pointless -- he can sound as if he were speaking to a meeting of the ultra-right-wing National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

In short, when Sarkozy speaks, it's difficult to tell whether he is politically to the left or the right. This lack of political identification makes each new paragraph in his speeches sound like fresh, fascinating politics, like an adventure and an outrageous yearning for democratic debate.

Anyone who hears Sarkozy speak for the first time is overwhelmed by his talent as a speaker, and those who hear him for the 10th time still want to hear the latest rhetorical trick up his sleeve. Sarkozy's most impressive trick is that the moment he leaves the stage, he seems to have provided the perfect answer for every significant question. But, somehow, all the significant questions remain unanswered.

By the 11th day of the riots, when the violence had reached a climax and when the government had not yet declared a state of emergency, youth were on the rampage in 300 cities and towns, and well over a thousand vehicles were going up in flames on a nightly basis. The rioters were demolishing nursery schools, city halls, fire stations, schools, post offices and social agencies, beating passing motorcyclists with sticks and hurling hammers and rocks and Molotov cocktails at anything in uniform.

And all the while they were chanting slogans, voicing their hatred for Sarkozy. His rhetoric, far from calming the situation, only inflamed their rage, rage directed at Sarkozy's "pressure washing" remark, at the logic behind his idea of scouring the suburbs, and at his ill-chosen use of the word "scum," shortly before the riots broke out, to describe the "voyous," the petty criminals, rogues and hoodlums of the impoverished suburbs, an insult he repeated on prime-time television as recently as last Thursday evening.

Sarkozy has been surfing his way through the nights of the riots like a character in a fairy tale. Long before a tired and clueless Chirac addressed the issue, and long before Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin began reading carefully prepared statements from small pieces of paper, Sarkozy had made a point of keeping a high profile from the very beginning, appearing at every flashpoint, every battlefield.

He has been rushing through the country by helicopter, a small man in an open-collared shirt, his shoulders too wide for his short body, his face a reflection of the seriousness of the situation. He finds encouraging words for police officers and firemen, and comforting words for victims of the violence. His supporters adore him for his hands-on approach, for his simple, clear words, and for his addresses to a France "that gets up early in the morning and works hard," a France he is intent on convincing "that the government is standing watch," that the republic will prevail, even over a crisis of this magnitude.

But the French republic is more unsettled than it has been in a long time. France's great crisis comes at a time when its presidential system is weakened, an old, sick man is at the helm, and the system's frailties are painfully obvious. The country is paying the price for eternally treating politics as an elegant game of intrigue, as a series of scuffles among groups and subgroups losing themselves in one stratagem after the next, clamoring for the favor of a king they now call president.

When the Germans speak of being weary of politics, they generally have no idea of the dramatic extent to which this phenomenon has ballooned in France. Hardly a week goes by without the announcement of new programs for immediate implementation, without new talk about major reform projects, without new promises of social reform. The riots of the past weeks alone have revealed the shortcomings of almost 30 years of celebrated urban development and social projects.

Ever since the late 1970s, when it became clear that the vast impersonal housing projects on the outskirts of France's major cities were becoming breeding grounds of dissatisfaction, governments of every political stripe have promised solutions, presented action plans and formed commissions. The laws and papers on this issue are legion, and French politicians have showered the suburbs with construction projects, social workers and varying levels of police supervision. The situation, though, hasn't changed a bit.

Describing the situation itself is easy enough: In the vast majority of cases, someone with a name like Mustafa or Samir will not attend good schools in France, will not receive reasonable job training and, in the end, will remain unemployed. He will grow up in a crowded, low-income apartment building, and even as a child he will become intimately acquainted with every conceivable human ill. As an adult, he will have trouble finding an apartment, he will constantly be asked for identification papers by brusque police officers, and he will experience humiliation over and over -- despite his French papers and despite his pride in being a French citizen.

France must face the awful question of whether its society, despite the grand ideals behind the blue, white and red colors of its flag, has fallen prey to a day-to-day, matter-of-fact racism. The country's principled national motto, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" ("Freedom, equality and brotherhood"), is suddenly being undermined by other, more disreputable -- and long ignored -- voices. Le Pen's success on the right wing, it seems, was not merely an accident, but rather a serious political message delivered by a large chunk of the electorate.

It is only against this background that Nicolas Sarkozy makes sense. And it is only against this background that it becomes clear why Sarkozy, with his angry breaches of taboos, is so popular and why he hasn't become a political has-been long ago. When journalists asked him, during his trip through Lorraine whether he was concerned about a gain in support from the right wing, he coolly responded, "Do you question the readers of your paper about their views?"

Sarkozy does not shy away from difficult questions, nor is he afraid to voice the complaints of the silent majority. To the dismay of the directionless Socialists, Sarkozy acts as both cabinet minister and opposition leader, at times even taking an aggressive stance against his own supporters. He says that his party does not stand behind the administration but is pushing it forward. Sarkozy is a political animal -- and a beast of prey at that.

That the rioters in France's suburbs are portraying Sarkozy as the devil incarnate is indicative of his love-hate relationship with the French public. It's as if the youth who vilify also want to show him their vulnerabilities. Indeed, Sarkozy -- as becomes evident from talking to ghetto residents -- is the only politician who enjoys even a modicum of respect in France's lost neighborhoods.

It's as if the Mustafas and Samirs and Bazoubas felt insulted and betrayed by one of their own. As if the interior minister -- himself a well-practiced hooligan, though armed with words instead of stones -- had buried their last hopes with his offensive rhetoric. Sarkozy, said one social worker, is "the only one who even dares set foot in the suburbs these days. The young people like that. But what they don't like is the fact that he, like everyone else, considers them scum and riffraff."

Sarkozy can only be described using sharp contradictions. During these weeks of unrest, he has played the dual roles of threat and savior. He is, it seems obvious, partly responsible for the outbreak of the riots and for their virulence. By the same token, however, he must be viewed as the only true glimmer of hope, as someone who takes the deep-rooted causes of the crisis seriously and intends to deal with them head-on.

Sarkozy has been politically ambitious from the start and may well have his sights set on the French presidency. He became a city councilman at 22, a mayor at 28, and cabinet minister at 38. He once said the only person who can stop him: "Myself."

But that was long before France's Black November. And it's still too early to say how he will be able to change France -- or whether France will even need Sarkozy anymore. His father was an immigrant from Hungary and his mother the daughter of a Greek physician. But the most challenging segment of his life may lie ahead. Perhaps he will become France's next president in 2007, at 52. Or perhaps he will be just another failed immigrant son.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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By Ullrich Fichtner

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