When he promised five years ago to take a pressure washer to a housing project populated mainly by immigrants, Nicolas Sarkozy’s political stock soared. Two years later, when he invited disgruntled newcomers to “leave a country they don’t like,” the resulting publicity helped propel him to the Élysée Palace. So on a level of crass politics, France’s 55-year-old president had every reason to think his latest dip in the well of Gallic xenophobia would pay off. Seldom has a French leader gone wrong playing defender of la République against the intruding hordes.
How, then, did a Sarkozy government offensive against illegal gypsy encampments in the country’s central cities turn out to be such a cringe-inducing failure? It’s been four weeks since authorities began deporting ethnic Roma by the planeload. Yet with each “repatriation” flight back to Romania, a backlash has grown. With more than 630 Roma expelled and 117 squatter camps dismantled, officials with both the European Union and the UN were criticizing the exodus, noting that few of the gypsies appeared to understand their rights. By last week, the chorus of critics had expanded across political and religious boundaries. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, condemned the operation as “a circus,” adding, “there are certain lines that must not be crossed.”
If Sarkozy thought the policy might garner support among average voters, he was mistaken. Opinion polls suggested the president’s approval rating has sunk to the low 30s, and that he trails rivals who have not even declared their candidacy. The results have led some experts to conclude that sentiment has turned against the law-and-order policies promulgated by Sarkozy and his party, the Union for a Popular Movement. “The public has the feeling that this government is carrying out unjust policies,” Frederic Dabi of the IFOP polling agency told Agence France-Presse.
That might be stretching the point. Just a month ago, eight out of 10 voters were telling pollsters they approved of measures to dismantle the Roma camps, and even now the French appear split on the expulsions, with 48 per cent in favour versus 42 opposed. Still, on the spectrum of French immigration controversies, the roughly 15,000 Roma thought to be living in the country illegally scarcely register, says Michel Gueldry, a professor of French and European politics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “This is not like past expulsions of so-called traditional immigrants from North Africa,” he explains. “There’s neither a positive feeling nor a great deal of animosity to the Roma.”
The issue certainly hasn’t been enough to ease fears over Sarkozy’s other policies, or to stop the odour of scandal. The president has been grappling with the country’s stagnant economy while preparing for deep cuts to education and other public services—never an easy sell in his highly socialized country. Worse, after casting himself as an outsider capable of cleaning up cronyism and corruption, Sarkozy has been crippled by allegations that he took illegal campaign money from Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics empire. And his at times distinctly un-presidential mien hasn’t helped: Sarkozy has verbally sparred with people insufficiently awed by his presence, once telling a man who refused to shake his hand to “sod off.”
With his image thus tarnished, his abrupt move against gypsies is widely seen as diversionary, and all the more craven because its targets are unable to fight back. “The Roma are a very weak group,” says Gueldry. “They don’t have a political voice or constituency within the country.” Such rhetoric is born partially of political necessity—conservative nationalists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen have taken a big bite out of France’s political centre in the past by pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment.
Still, the failure of the campaign spells serious problems for the president, who has just 18 months before he must face the electorate. Xenophobia may yet trump empathy where the Roma are concerned. But Nicolas Sarkozy will need other, better cards if he wants to win again.