A sweeping and blunt proposal by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to strip French citizenship from persons of foreign origin who endanger police is bringing storms of protest by minority groups and the opposition who accuse the president of a new low in playing the race and ethnic card to appeal to the French far right.
But by Friday, the president’s new law and order program went further by an order of magnitude: In Grenoble, site of a recent riot after police clashes with Arab youths, Sarkozy stated citizens from immigrant backgrounds who endanger the lives of police officers can be stripped of their passports – a striking pronouncement in a country where it is illegal for the state to label people based on race, religion, or ethnicity.
"It runs counter to the spirit of the French Republic,” argued Robert Badinter, a respected former French law minister and architect of the abolishing of the death penalty here. “At the core of the problem is the feeling of some of these French people, whom Mr. Sarkozy calls of foreign origin, that they remain aliens in the nation despite their identity card.”
Is Sarkozy changing the subject?
Ruling party officials, including Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, say new measures are needed due to increasing security threats and public worry in France. But critics charge Sarkozy with trying to change the political subject here from a series of scandals that have made him politically vulnerable to crackdowns on Gypsies who exist on the margins of society, and by threats against minority citizens whose presence is already a source of fear in the French mainstream.
In the past year, Sarkozy sought to ban the face-covering burqas worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women – itself seen as a way for the ruling party to raise the controversial issue of Islam in France.
After the Grenoble speech, French commentators sent salvos of disagreement on both the proposed law and its evident play for far right voters.
Are the proposals even legal?
The citizenship-stripping proposals may in fact be legally impossible – putting it mainly in the category of incendiary political rhetoric that breaks long-honored French egalitarian taboos.
“Nicolas Sarkozy has pushed the classic center-right dialogue to the most extreme point on security,” says Phillipe Waucampt, a columnist for the centrist Républicain Lorrain in eastern France. “If that fails, he will one day decide whether to create an alliance with the National Front [the far-right party of Jean-Marie Le Pen].”
The National Front itself issued a statement saying the only “merit” in Sarkozy’s citizenship-stripping proposal was to confirm a “strong link between crime and certain immigrants,” but that it fell short of swift deportations of immigrants. Mr. Le Pen stated separately that, “With Mr. Sarkozy it's always words, words, words” – and called for a reestablishing of courts that can serve jail time and expulsion for residents (not citizens) who commit crimes.
The 'Gypsy question'
Last week’s crackdown on Gypsies came as Sarkozy’s approval ratings are in the low 30s, and following petty corruption scandals among ministers, a “Bettencourt affair” that ties a senior minister to alleged tax evasions by France’s wealthiest woman, and overall public economic disenchantment.
At a July 28 palace meeting on the Gypsy question, to which Gypsy representatives were not invited, Sarkozy took a tough line on Gypsies who commit crime, particularly those who travel to France from Romania and Bulgaria under a special agreement. French authorities plan to send “tax inspectors” to French Gypsy camps to investigate income sources for “large-cylinder autos” like Mercedes and BMWs.
France has some 400,000 Gypsies, called “traveling persons,” and is host to roughly 15,000 Gypsies from Bulgaria and Romania known here as “Roma.” This month brought rioting by young Gypsies at a police station after police shot a French Gypsy wanted for stealing who had refused to stop at a roadblock.
The focus and strictures on Gypsies by Sarkozy has caused considerable worry inside the Roma community.
Michel Lambert, vice-president of a Gypsy association in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, says “the effect of Sarkozy’s declaration is that when we go door to door, when we take our things to the markets, people are less sympathetic. Now people will be more afraid of us, we will be further stereotyped. We didn’t need that; we already had enough problems.”
Yesterday also brought release of a July 21 videotape of some 60 African immigrants, said to be from the Ivory Coast, being evicted from their homes in order to clear the way for new public housing.