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World Focus: Race issue gives Sarkozy an easy route to boost support

Can it be coincidence the President rants about foreigners when his approval rating is at its lowest ebb?

Racist, the French? A recent opinion poll suggested that 70 to 80 per cent of French people welcomed President Sarkozy's idea that certain criminals "of foreign origin" should be stripped of their French nationality.

The proposal, which will be formalised before the end of the month, has been attacked by voices on both the left and the right as cynical and unworkable.

The more thoughtful critics include two people who are by no means Sarko-haters, the celebrity philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and the former Socialist prime minister, Michel Rocard. By associating "foreign origin" with violent crime, they say, the President is stooping to the populist logic of the far right National Front. He is even, Mr Rocard suggested at the weekend, resurrecting the xenophobic and anti-Republican legislation of the collaborationist Vichy regime of 1940-44.

Can it just be a coincidence, the critics ask, that Mr Sarkozy is ranting about crime and foreigners when the economic crisis, and now a party-financing scandal, have brought his approval ratings to their lowest ever ebb? What is "foreign origin", anyway? Will the new law apply only to people who were born abroad? Or will it also apply to second and third generation immigrants? What would happen to people left with no nationality? On Friday, a poll in Le Figaro gave high approval ratings to this and other recent proposals by Mr Sarkozy to get tough on crime. The figures were received with undisguised glee in the Elysée Palace.

"A slap in the face for the well-meaning," said Mr Sarkozy's childhood friend, the Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux. "As usual, 'Sarkozyism' is out of step with the élites but in step with society."

Another informative poll appeared yesterday. According to an annual survey by the Journal du Dimanche, the French West Indian pop singer and former tennis player Yannick Noah remains the most popular person in France for the sixth year in succession. The second most popular Frenchman is the retired footballer Zinédine Zidane, born in Marseilles to Algerian parents. Seven of the people in the top 10 are, arguably, to use Mr Sarkozy's phrase, "of foreign origin". Racist, the French?

President Sarkozy, also "of foreign origin", did not feature in the top 50. The list is, admittedly, freighted with singers, actors, sports stars and television presenters (many of whom are unknown outside France).

Two incidents sparked the President's recent series of diatribes against criminals and especially criminals "of foreign origin". Shots were fired at police last month during riots in Grenoble, after a young man of North African origin was killed by police while trying to rob a casino. Gypsies of French origin rioted in a small town in central France after a gendarme shot dead a young gypsy whose car failed to stop at a checkpoint.

In the first case, the rioters were a typically disparate bunch of teenagers from the "troubled" suburbs of Grenoble: brown, black and some white but all, almost certainly, born in France. In the second case, the "travelling people" who rioted were people with French surnames whose families have lived in France for centuries.

President Sarkozy's response to the Grenoble incident was to make a speech linking crime and immigration and promising to remove the French nationality of people "of foreign origin" who fired bullets at policemen. His response to the second incident was to launch a crackdown on the Roma who have entered France illegally from Eastern Europe in recent years (but had nothing to do with the rural riot). A Roma camp near Lyons was cleared by police on Friday.

In both cases, President Sarkozy made a connection between crime and legal and illegal immigration which was at best wilful, and worst dishonest. There is a problem with Roma entering France illegally but vigorous efforts were already being made to repatriate them. Five years after the riots of October 2005, the troubled multi-racial banlieues of French cities remain a powder keg.

Before his election in 2007, Mr Sarkozy promised to encourage the many positive things which also happen in the banlieues. Little has been done.

Racist, the French? No, but they are depressingly willing, it seems, to be led by the nose by simplistic, xenophobic formulae and slogans.