By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 4, 2007
LA COURNEUVE, France, May 3 -- After an 11-year-old boy was killed here two years ago in crossfire between rival gangs, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France's interior minister, came to the underclass neighborhood of immigrant families outside Paris and promised to clean it up with an industrial power hose.
That image of France's top cop spraying away "scum," as he later described violent youths in Paris's minority-heavy suburbs, has dogged Sarkozy ever since, fueling fears of divisiveness that remain his greatest liability going into Sunday's presidential election.
"All the people were shocked when he talked about cleaning us out with a hose," said Ousmane Calina, 18, who voted for Socialist Ségolène Royal in the first-round balloting April 22; he said he would vote for her again in round two. Calina, the son of immigrants from Senegal, voiced the concern of many here: "There are going to be riots if Sarkozy is elected."
Royal, who trails him in the most recent polls by four to six percentage points, is using what pollsters refer to as the Sarkozy fear factor to try to close the gap, repeatedly accusing him in the campaign's final weeks of "violence" and "brutality."
It is a message that resonates deeply with voters in communities such as La Courneuve, where political activists and ordinary citizens hope that increased voter registration and turnout will translate into greater political clout, to force change and bring racial and ethnic equality.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has a very specific image among people of African origin because of everything he said in the suburbs and the phrases he used," said Damien Philippot, an analyst at the IFOP polling agency. An IFOP survey in March reflected the polarization: 85 percent of the French African voters polled said they would vote for Royal if she faced Sarkozy, candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement, in the second round.
Anti-Sarkozy feelings run particularly high in La Courneuve, where 56 percent of the 35,000 residents live in public housing, and the streets are filled with people in traditional African, Muslim and South Asian dress. Sarkozy's posters have been defaced with swastikas, and several people interviewed, including Calina, described the candidate as Hitler-like.
The town is part of the Seine-Saint-Denis department (a French administrative unit) northwest of Paris, where widespread riots that shook France in 2005 began and were most intense. Many critics say Sarkozy's provocative statements fueled the unrest.
Political activists conducted an aggressive voter registration drive in Seine-Saint-Denis, and the number of voters this year was 8.5 percent higher than in the 2002 presidential election -- one of the largest increases in France. In the first round of voting two weeks ago, turnout was 82 percent, up from 64.4 percent five years ago, and Royal trounced Sarkozy 41.6 percent to 19.6 -- her widest lead in any department in mainland France.
"Their vote for Ségolène Royal was more a vote against Nicolas Sarkozy," said Adelaide Zulfikarpasic, an analyst with Ipsos polling company. Data gathered during the campaign showed that Sarkozy "was the candidate most loved by people, but also the one most hated," she said. "I'm not sure he can be a president who unifies France."
Sarkozy, 52, and Royal, 53, have both promised reform, and either would be France's first president from the baby boomer generation. But Sarkozy has groomed an image as tough-talking and decisive, while Royal has nurtured one as a mother protector and healer. Sarkozy favors tax cuts, tougher controls on new immigrants, a more free-market economy and an American-style work ethic, while Royal promises to protect the benefits of France's vast social welfare state.
Royal has not placed ahead of Sarkozy in polls since early January, and in the closing weeks of the campaign she increasingly resorted to personal attacks suggesting that he is a dangerous authoritarian. She was helped this week by 100 well-known artists and intellectuals who published a letter and petition urging voters to support Royal "to avoid the danger of a France at war with itself, in conflict and crisis, divided and torn apart."
Sarkozy has struggled for months to soften his image, but he rarely ventured into immigrant and minority communities, while Royal cultivated them. At a recent campaign rally, Sarkozy painted himself as the victim of a smear campaign, asking more than 40 times, "Why so much hatred?"
"There's a lot of hatred because of what he said," said La Courneuve resident Nadya Nekkar, 21, whose parents hail from Algeria. "France used immigrants to rebuild the country after World War II, and now he's saying immigrants are no good and should go home."
"He thinks young people destroy things because they enjoy it. He doesn't understand the cause of violence here," Nekkar said. She believes the violence is a result of poor education, high unemployment, inadequate housing and low-paying jobs. Sarkozy, with his promises of tax cuts and free-market reforms, "wants the rich to be richer and the poor to work harder," she said.
But many residents here expressed conflicting feelings about Sarkozy, saying his tough stance against crime helped make the streets safer.
"There are lawyers and doctors who live in these high-rises, not just hoodlums, and at least 80 percent of them are French, but Sarkozy didn't make any distinction and talked as if everybody here should be hosed down," said Kaambi Mze Soilihe, 35, a local youth counselor and French citizen who came here 13 years ago from the island of Comoros, a former French colony off the southeast coast of Africa.
"Nobody is against security and safety in this neighborhood -- we all want it -- but Sarkozy wants only repression."
Tony Essono, 32, an unemployed economist whose parents emigrated from Cameroon before he was born, said that despite years of anger and discrimination, people in La Courneuve were willing to put their faith in the ballot box "because they understand they can change something" by voting. But, he added, "if Sarkozy is elected, it means we haven't been heard, and we'll trash everything."
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.