Cheat Sheet: The Politics of French Rioting
The recent rioting in France exposed entrenched social and economic problems. But it also highlighted the cast of characters jostling for position ahead of France’s 2007 presidential elections. Here’s how it breaks down.
Jacques Chirac, president, Union for Popular Movement (UMP)
Jacques Chirac, president, Union for Popular Movement (UMP)
Chirac emerges from the crisis appearing old and out of touch. He was nearly invisible during the first 10 days of rioting, and he made his first public statements on the riots at a November 6 press conference, 11 days after the rioting began. He didnt address the country formally until a week later, when he put on his glasses to inform France that it was in a deep malaise and an identity crisis. He rather lamely called for more ethnic faces in the media, businesses, and politics. But theres no indication that the riots have led Chirac to rethink the integration model that emphasizes Frenchness over fostering ethnic or minority communities. In a recent survey in the Parisien Dimanche, 72 percent of respondents said Chirac has a weak influence in the government. Chirac is out of the 2007 presidential picture, and it showed.
Dominique de Villepin, prime minister, UMP
A career diplomat who has never held elected office, Villepin is Chiracs loyal protg. The novelist, poet, and essayist is best known for his stint as foreign minister, when he vocally opposed the Iraq war. Villepin is known for grand gestures and ineffectual government programs. True to form, his reaction to the riots was cosmetic. He offered only small measures to alleviate unemployment, but nothing substantial. Image-wise, Villepin has adopted a softer, more diplomatic tone than his political rival Sarkozy. But he has echoed Sarkozy on politically popular measures such as the expulsion of immigrants who commit crimes and tougher deportation laws for illegals. By maintaining a tough stance as he works more with Muslim and immigrant communities, he could expand his appeal ahead of the campaign season. Coming up with bold new proposals on integration policies could make him a more vibrant and competitive candidate. But theres little in Villepins history that suggests he has it in him.
Nicolas Sarkozy, interior minister, UMP
The rioting provided the perfect backdrop for Sarkozy to step into the media spotlight he relishes. He skillfully reinforced his hard-line positions on crime, prostitution, and gangs, and mid-Novemberpublic opinion polls showed his approval rating climbed 11 points since the rioting began. When the major rioting broke out, he called the rioters racaille, French for riff-raff, which ignited more fires and unrest. Often seen visiting the police and firefighters in the suburbs, he showed a willingness to get out on the ground that played well with supporters. Sarkozy says that unemployment is the first cause of the riots, which conveniently meshes with his insistence on free-market reforms for France. Sarkozys decision to prolong the state of emergency and his expulsion of noncitizens who were arrested were largely unopposed. But Sarkozy remains controversial, and hes carved out a precarious political ledge. He supports measures such as positive discriminationthe French equivalent of affirmative actionwhile he simultaneously lures nationalist politician Jean Marie Le Pen voters by his simplistic tough stance. His charisma is undeniable, however. In a 48-hour rally for the UMP party in mid-November, he pulled in 5,000 new members. He also called the suburban riots a validation of a rupture that is occurring in the French social and political system, which indicates that he will further distance himself from some members of his own party.
Jean Marie Le Pen, leader of National Front Party
I told you so has been Le Pens principal reaction to the riots. For years, the far-right Le Pen has spouted xenophobia and supported deporting immigrants, and even second-and third-generation French citizens. In the past few weeks, his National Front has reportedlyaccumulated thousands of new members. The riots have given the fading Le Pen a shot of new life. After a shocking second-place finish in the Frances 2002 presidential elections, his political star seemed on the wane. But the recent riots played directly into his hands. Le Pen suggested a state of emergency and expulsion of those rioters without papers. He not-so-subtly called for a total dismantlement of ethnic ghettos. He recently flayed political leaders, saying the government isnt afraid of the suburbs, but Le Pens electoral votes. Hes exaggerating, of course. Le Pens poll numbers arent much better than Chiracs. He faces competition from younger leaders in his own party and Philippe de Villiers, the leader of the right-wing Movement for France. It also doesnt help that Sarkozy has won over many Le Pen supporters with his own broadsides on crime, immigration, and economic reform.
The Socialist Party
Although sometimes effective in parliament, the Socialists have further marginalized themselves with their reaction to the riots. The Socialists have struggled since the departure of their leader, Lionel Jospin, in 2002 to build a unified platform. During the rioting, they voted against prolonging the state of emergency for three monthsa vote they lost. In general, the Socialists have done a lousy job of explaining their generally proimmigration policies. Reeling and divided after a split of the European Union Constitution vote in June, the party nonetheless managed to reelect Francois Hollande as party leader and reunite at the end of November. But Hollande doesnt have the wherewithal to breathe wind into a flagging party. With the Socialists out of the picture, the political right is ascendant. Sarkozy is in the lead, but Le Pen and Villepin are still in the race.
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