Sarkozy Is Courting Right-Wing Extremists

As interior minister, Sarkozy took a tough line on the 2005 riots. Lionel Bonaventure / AFP-Getty Images

Karim Boudouda was an authentic bad guy, no doubt about it. He'd piled up a stack of convictions for armed robbery in his 27 years, and when he held up a casino in the little French town of Uriage-les-Bains last month, he was armed to the teeth with an Uzi submachine gun and a Swiss-made assault rifle. Fleeing the police, the Algerian-born French citizen headed for his home turf in a dilapidated housing project filled with immigrants on the outskirts of Grenoble. In the shootout that followed, Boudouda died with a bullet in his head.

For three nights the neighborhood where he'd taken shelter erupted in the kind of violence that swept outer-city slums throughout France in 2005. Dozens of cars went up in flames as young thugs taunted the cops, who poured in by the hundreds. Somebody fired live rounds at the police, which is rare in a French riot, but nobody else died. None of the cops were wounded. This time there was no chain reaction. The violence didn't spread. The fires died.

If the French are still talking about the incident a month later, and they are (despite the annual August vacation that has seen most of the chattering classes decamp to the beach), the reason is the way President Nicolas Sarkozy reacted. He used the Grenoble gunfight to make a bid for support from the far—and the very far—right that may forever discredit his presidency in the eyes of the French public. Or it may get him reelected in a year and a half.

Ten days after the smoke cleared, Sarkozy flew to Grenoble, looking to pull off a tour de force performance (with the emphasis on "force"). Sarkozy wanted to play the law-and-order anti-immigrant tough guy, a favorite role. During the 2005 riots, Sarkozy famously said he'd wash the "scum" out of the slums with a street-cleaning hose. What he did in fact was suck away voters en masse from the far-right National Front party of Jean-Marie LePen. Now was his chance for a replay.

But Sarkozy's act has gotten old, and it looks too obviously opportunistic. During his first couple of years as president, after all, he put the hose aside and won national and international respect as a clear-eyed pragmatist trying to pull the French people together at the center. The far right felt forgotten. Now to win it back, Sarkozy needs to up the ante. So this time around he decided to break one of France's great taboos: he suggested naturalized French citizens should be stripped of that nationality if convicted of certain crimes.

The specific example Sarkozy mentioned was anyone trying to kill a police officer or other representative of the government. And who would want to protect cop killers from any sort of punishment? But in politics, of course, it's not precisely what you say, it's what you know people will hear that counts. And in case anyone missed the point, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux followed up with the suggestion that immigrants convicted of polygamy or "inciting" female genital mutilation might also have French nationality taken away. The allusion to practices often identified with Muslims or Africans raised questions about just how far the idea of revoking citizenship might be taken, but it left no doubt what kind of citizen would be targeted.

In fact, after launching a debate last year on "national identity" and a drive to ban the kind of full-face veils worn by a handful of Muslim women in France, Sarkozy and Hortefeux were now crossing a sort of right-wing Rubicon. In the pantheon of France's "republican values," citizenship is the great leveler, the unassailable epitome of liberty, equality, and fraternity—so much so that once you've got it, the state is explicitly prohibited from asking any questions about your national, religious, or ethnic origins. For more than 200 years, with one brief exception, no French government has dared to distinguish between some sort of Class A or Class B citizens. And since Sarkozy's remarks in Grenoble, left-wing commentators have been quick to draw analogies with the one government that did push such measures: the Vichy French regime of Nazi collaborators during World War II.

In fact, Sarkozy is still the results-oriented politician (and cynic) that he always was. It's now clear his attempts at "ouverture," the opening up to the left that he embarked on after taking office in 2007, didn't pay off. He may have looked statesmanlike co-opting some of the Socialist Party's best-known figures by bringing them into the cabinet or seeking them out for consultations. And that may well have been a shrewd measure to weaken the already divided Socialist Party. But it did nothing to win votes for Sarkozy's UMP, which suffered a massive defeat in March when the Socialists won 25 of 26 regional elections. Those are not the kind of numbers you like to see as a presidential contest starts approaching.

With Sarkozy's approval ratings now in the low 30s and sometimes dropping into the 20s, with unemployment topping 10 percent, taxes likely to rise, and a fund-raising scandal that just won't die, Sarkozy has to shore up his position on the far right—where the unsavory Jean-Marie LePen will soon retire and his increasingly popular daughter, Marine, could emerge as a serious spoiler in national politics.

So with thinly disguised language—and frequent denials that there is any desire to "stigmatize" one group or another—Sarkozy and Hortefeux embrace the idea that immigrants or their descendants are the key to the problem of "insecurity" in France. For good measure, Sarkozy also announced in Grenoble a campaign to shut down hundreds of illegal camps used by Roma (or Gypsies) from Bulgaria and Romania, then to send them back to their countries of origin. Whether any of this will stand up to constitutional tests in France or court tests in the European Union is another matter, but Sarkozy declared this is "a war we've decided to wage against traffickers and criminals."

Sarkozy's many critics say, in effect, he's like the little boy who cried wolf, but cries "war" instead. The caustic satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchainé notes that as interior minister in 2002, Sarkozy declared "war on insecurity"; in 2005, during the nationwide riots, it was "war on the scum." As president in 2008, Sarkozy said he was waging war against "traffickers" and in 2009 against "the gangs." Despite all these bellicose pronouncements, the government's official statistics show that from 2003 to 2009—when Sarkozy's "wars" ostensibly were solving the problem—assaults and other violent crime against individuals rose 16.3 percent. The left-wing weekly Marianne, which called Sarkozy a thug on its cover earlier this month, ran a poll in its current issue saying that almost 70 percent of the French think the public security policies "over the course of the last eight years," which would mean with Sarkozy as interior minister or president, were "ineffective."

But, here's what really galls and appalls the left. Other polls show that Sarkozy's right-wing shock treatment might actually pay off with the French public. One survey conducted for the conservative daily Le Figaro earlier this month tallied up massive approval for stripping nationality away from "criminals of foreign origin" if they try to kill a policeman (70 percent in favor), or for polygamy or genital mutilation (80 percent). Dismantling the Roma camps won 79 percent approval. Those are the kind of numbers Sarkozy hasn't seen for himself or any of his ideas—right, left, or center—in a very long time.

Christopher Dickey is also the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD, chosen by The New York Times as a notable book of 2009.