Sarkozy at the Center of French Riot Debate

Riots have eased across France, but there is still trouble on the streets. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who shocked some by calling the rioters "scum," has been at the center of the debate over the country's tensions.

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The French police stepped up patrols on the streets of Paris overnight to prevent violence from spreading to the center of the capital. The riots have eased across the country, but there is still trouble on the streets and anger at the French politician at the center of the government's response, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. The riots have brought international attention to a man who hopes to be France's next president. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Paris.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

It is unusual to hear plain talk from French politicians, so when Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called the young dispossessed rioters of the Paris suburbs rakaya(ph), a word that roughly translates as scum, the French were shocked.

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AMOS: Over the weeks of urban unrest, Nicolas Sarkozy has been the most visible and controversial minister in the government. Hated by the angry young men who challenge the police each night, they want him to apologize or resign.

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AMOS: Outside this cafe in Paris, Sallah Aziz(ph), a student of North African origin, says Sarkozy has gone too far.

Mr. SALLAH AZIZ (Student): Sarkozy like to do a provocation. I understand if the young people--they cannot respect a guy, a minister who should be a model for the people. Sarkozy is a bad boy, you know.

AMOS: A bad boy or an astute politician? He defended his controversial statement in a television interview this week.

Mr. NICOLAS SARKOZY (France's Interior Minister): (Through Translator) Those who fired live bullets at the police, those who burnt a bus where there was a 56-year-old handicapped woman, those who stoned a bus, putting an 18-month-old child in the hospital, when I say they are hooligans or scum, I stand by it.

AMOS: Christian Mallard, a political commentator on French TV says Sarkozy captures the mood of mainstream France.

Mr. CHRISTIAN MALLARD (Political Commentator): Sarkozy--let's put it this way. He has been very clumsy to say `scum,' but at the same time, some of them are criminals. For a lot of people, you will hear a lot of French saying Sarkozy says openly what a majority of the French thinks underground.

Mr. JEAN MARC ILLUSEY(ph) (Political Analyst): He wants to show that he goes right at the issue to the point of being perhaps impolite or too tough, you see.

AMOS: Political analyst Jean Marc Illusey says Sarkozy is making a calculated appeal to the politics of the right, supporting front-line police, backing fast-track courts to jail leaders of the riots. At the same time, says Illusey, he's also trying to appeal to the left by calls for a radical rethinking of France's flawed model of integration. Sarkozy is the only government minister to openly support affirmative action for minorities.

Mr. ILLUSEY: Sarkozy has the political determination to do things that are unpopular for a time. He's not a racist by heart. He's not opposed to equality and to helping Muslims with affirmative actions programs.

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AMOS: Here on the Champs Elysees, Sarkozy toured police reinforcements on Saturday. The country's top law enforcement official, he's courted the French media since the violence began, appearing in police halls and with riot squads in the suburbs. It's an American-style media campaign that's unusual in France, but Sarkozy is now more associated with the tough measures to stop the riots than any other politician, which could undermine his presidential bid, says analyst Jean Marc Illusey, especially after his comments about the rioters.

Mr. ILLUSEY: He failed to understand he was casting aspersion on a whole community who, up to this date, feel they have been dissed and feel they--the first thing is not about building new tenements. It's not about urban renewal. It's about R-E-S-P-E-C-T, respect.

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AMOS: This is the France of the picture postcards, a magnet for tourists, a country proud of its national values of liberty, equality and fraternity, a society that expects its people to fit one model of citizenship.

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AMOS: This is also France, with the largest non-European immigrant community in Europe. Worshipers who come to the central mosque in Paris on Fridays are mostly from France's former colonies. Before the riots, Nicolas Sarkozy had been more successful than any other French politician in reaching out to the Muslim community. He's now unable to visit any mosque. Outrage against him makes it dangerous. It's still unclear how French voters will respond. Dominique Mosi with the French Institute of International Relations says a lot depends on voter calculations. Does France need a tough guy or is Sarkozy playing with fire?

Mr. DOMINIQUE MOSI (French Institute of International Relations): Oh, his numbers are very good. He incarnates the fed-up feeling of French society vis-a-vis the unleashing of violence in the streets. But at the same time, many people may say, `Well, we may want Sarkozy policy, but led by another man.'

AMOS: As for Nicolas Sarkozy, when asked in a television interview if he thought of his presidential campaign while shaving, he said, `A lot more times than that.' But for the first time since the riots began, his poll numbers are dropping. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Paris.

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