In a country where politicians generally prefer evasion to bluntness, Nicolas Sarkozy makes a point of being an anomaly. As mobs of disaffected youths rampaged through the streets across France again last week, the Interior Minister projected an air of tough-guy bravado, using ghetto epithets to condemn the rioters, daring them to take him on. When he appeared at a televised town-hall meeting, Sarkozy took umbrage at what he deemed the insolent tone of a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt and shaved head--"We are not in the street here," Sarkozy said--but refused to apologize for his own use of the derogatory term racaille, or scum, to describe the delinquents of France's blighted suburbs. In fact, he used it again. "Thugs and scum," he said, when asked who was behind the violence. "I stand by it, and I underline it."
How Sarkozy, 50, carries out that pledge may determine France's political future. While the fires in the working-class immigrant suburbs seemed to be subsiding last week, the government's ineffectual response to the violence has stirred nearly as much public outrage as have the rioters. French President Jacques Chirac, who was re-elected in 2002 in part on his promise to address the problem of "insecurity," especially in the banlieues, or suburbs, remained astoundingly absent as Paris burned. The weekly Nouvel Observateur called him the "phantom of the Elysée." The riots had raged for more than a week before he made a brief, uninspiring call for calm on Nov. 6, then spoke of the troubles again in a press conference on Nov. 10. Chirac's aides insisted that it was he who encouraged his protégé, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, to invoke a law allowing local authorities to set curfews, but most of the government's announced measures in deprived areas have been tried before with scant success.
That left the stage open for Sarkozy, who is already running hard to succeed Chirac as President in 2007. As his colleagues dithered, Sarkozy, the son of Hungarian immigrants, thrust himself to the center of the crisis. He proudly states that he has been out in the banlieues every night since the trouble began. While de Villepin, who is seen as Sarkozy's main rival in 2007, struck a conciliatory tone, Sarkozy called last week for the immediate deportation of any foreign citizens convicted of taking part in the violence. He pointedly rejected the idea that government neglect of the banlieues was the chief cause of the riots. "It's not just unemployment, injustice and racism," he said on television. "It's fear generated by gangs that live from drugs and stolen cars."