By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
PARIS, Nov. 8 -- After a police tear gas canister exploded inside the Clichy-sous-Bois mosque during Ramadan prayers in the first days of the violence here, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister, asked to visit the suburban mosque to address outraged worshipers.
"I can't let you," Abderrahmane Bouhout, a leader in the local Muslim cultural association, said he told Sarkozy, recounting the conversation. "It's too emotional here."
"I'm not afraid," Sarkozy insisted.
"You may not be afraid," Bouhout said. "But I am afraid. I don't know how to manage you coming into the mosque."
No public figure in France has more at stake in the crisis rampaging across the country -- or has become a greater lightning rod for wrath against the government -- than Sarkozy, the nation's top law enforcement officer and the leading contender in the 2007 presidential election.
Sarkozy's track record as a law-and-order politician is threatened by the government's inability to stop the unrest. At the same time, his attempts to reach out to Muslim and immigrant communities have foundered amid rage over his undiplomatic references to marauding youth as "scum."
With cars and buildings burning on the 13th night of violence, the political dilemma of Nicolas Sarkozy -- a 50-year-old man with the melancholy, hooded eyes of a bloodhound and the cockiness of a bantam rooster -- has become a reflection of the nation's confrontation with civil chaos.
"He's caught between his own contradictions," said Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations. "A lot will depend on the way people judge the present event. Will they say, 'We need a tough guy and Sarkozy is the right man.'? Or has Sarkozy been playing with fire and he's getting what he deserved? That's the big issue in political terms: Will it serve him or will it destroy him?"
An opinion poll last weekend by the newspaper Le Figaro showed that during the first week of violence Sarkozy lost only three points from his 60 percent approval rating. Before the violence broke out, one of Sarkozy's aides described him as having the appeal of a "rock star."
For months, Sarkozy has been unabashed in his run for the presidency. He has courted the media, dominating the magazine covers, front pages and evening newscasts in an American-style campaign of self-promotion uncommon in France.
When Sarkozy made his first trip into the troubled northern Paris suburbs on the sixth day of violence, he kept a roomful of law enforcement officers and firefighters -- many of whom had had been up for much of the night dealing with the unrest -- waiting 45 minutes while he spoke with reporters outside.
He and his chief political rival, Dominique de Villepin, the erudite prime minister who is President Jacques Chirac's favored candidate to succeed him, snipe mercilessly at each other. Sarkozy heads the Union for a Popular Movement, the political party of all three men. The internal feud has been a significant factor in the paralysis of the government in dealing with the violence. Sarkozy and Villepin sit next to each other in the gilded meeting room of the Elysee Palace, but when the cameras are on, Sarkozy studiously avoids looking in Villepin's direction.
Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant father and a French mother with Jewish roots, has created a public image as a tough-talking outsider who did not attend the prestigious universities and political institutes that have produced most of the country's leaders -- including Villepin.
"He can be seen as provocative by French standards," said a Sarkozy aide who spoke on condition he not be identified by name. "But he doesn't want to be seen as the usual candidate with the old-school ways of doing things."
For the angry young men and boys -- most of them the French-born sons of immigrants -- who are torching cars and schools amid the housing projects of the French suburbs, Sarkozy is the voice of what they consider a hostile government. Now, instead of wading into crowds and confronting his critics in nose-to-nose debates in the shirt-sleeve style he relishes, he makes carefully orchestrated appearances in police meeting halls and the chambers of the Interior Ministry.
But Sarkozy also has angered the country's right-wing factions, proposing to change the century-old law separating religion and state by letting the government provide space for mosques and Muslim cultural centers in unused buildings. He argues that it is preferable for the French government to help finance mosques rather than allow foreign countries with radical Islamic elements to fund them.
"What is dangerous is not minarets, but cellars and garages that keep clandestine religious groups hidden," Sarkozy wrote in a small book he produced last year titled "The Republic, Religions and Hope."
He also has instituted programs to teach French to immigrant imams, saying, "I don't want any more imams who don't speak a word of French." He also has advocated evicting imams considered too radical in their preaching.
Sarkozy's personal political fortunes will likely be determined by the public perception of his handling of the crisis, according to political analysts.
"His reputation was made on his fight against crime," said Bruno Jeanbart, deputy director of policy studies for the polling group CSA. "He has to show now that it's still the case and he can still respond."
Some critics say Sarkozy's policies, though they produced significant declines in crime, have contributed to the crisis. During his first term as interior minister, he reorganized the national police agency's community-based squads, abandoning the practice of assigning officers to neighborhoods where they had local connections.
"He put an end to community police who were weaving links with people, trying to create social links," said Bertrand Badie, a professor of international relations at France's prestigious Institute of Political Sciences.
"He wanted to be presented as the champion, to have power and order."
But that policy has contributed to the feeling of mistrust between police and the impoverished communities of immigrants and their offspring where the police are assigned, according to Badie and others.
The fear of police harassment led two teenage boys from the northern suburbs of Paris to leap into a power substation on Oct. 27 while trying to dodge police at a checkpoint, according to their parents. The deaths of the youths, who were electrocuted, set off the current wave of violence.