During his first six months in office, French President Nicolas Sarkozy thrilled audiences at home and abroad with his kinetic vision for France. He stared down railworker unions, brokered a huge trade deal with China and generally signaled that he could redefine his country through sheer willpower alone. But as riots that broke out Nov. 25 north of Paris reminded us, the Sarkozy show isn't playing well with a crucial audience: residents of the banlieues, or France's impoverished suburbs.
The riots were brief but intense, featuring an unprecedented level of gun violence. And even as the fires died down, the underlying problems continued to boil. In the nation's poorest banlieues, where the residents are mostly black and Arab, jobless rates often near 40%. And Sarkozy has long been known as "the most hated man in the projects"--a reputation he earned before the last rioting, in 2005, when the then Interior Minister used racially charged language to denounce suburban thuggery.
Sarkozy's rhetoric hasn't softened much, but if there's one thing he and the suburbs can agree on, it's the need for change. The banlieues need jobs, and Sarkozy needs the threat of violence to subside once and for all. He can start with concrete measures such as reintroducing community policing and ramping up eduction initiatives. Talk alone won't work in the banlieues. "Project residents aren't impressed with Sarkozy's flash and flair and won't confuse it with hard, lasting results," warns political analyst Dominique Reynié. "He's in for a long, hard slog--or more rioting if nothing changes."