Mary Dejevsky: The opening skirmishes in a prize fight

Here was a politician who could be trusted to pander to their prejudices
Click to follow

As the rioting spread across the country, M. Sarkozy turned up for emergency cabinet meetings hollow-eyed and skeletal. It was surely only a matter of time before his brilliant career juddered to a halt.

Yet now, with the violence subsiding, "Sarko" is still in place and starting to look more chipper. As a weekend opinion poll showed, not only has he survived, but his ratings are largely intact. Some 53 per cent of those asked expressed confidence in M. Sarkozy to deal with the problems highlighted by the rioting. The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, attracted an almost identical rating of 52 per cent; the greatest loser was President Chirac, with a mere 29 per cent.

The most positive gloss on these figures is that France understood M. Sarkozy's predicament and remains captivated to a degree by his style. He is an attractive and outgoing politician who, like M. Chirac, but unlike many French politicians, also has something of the gambler's instinct. France appreciated that the rioting reflected problems that preceded M. Sarkozy's two short and separate terms as interior minister and were not only a matter of law and order. A great many politicians, local and national, past and present, could be called to account for the plight of the banlieues.

France might also have noted that M. Sarkozy, unlike most of his predecessors - who include the present prime minister - had at least made the effort to visit the most difficult banlieues and taken an interest in their policing. To the extent that local gang leaders might have seen the minister's interest as a threat, M. Sarkozy might have helped bring already seething discontent to the boil. But the hope must be that his survival in the polls signifies support rather than blame and a new willingness in France to tackle the dire problems of the banlieues.

There is, however, quite a different interpretation that can be placed on M. Sarkozy's survival - and one rather less flattering either to him or to his French supporters. In the first days of the unrest, M. Sarkozy referred publicly to the ringleaders of the riots as voyous, translated variously as hooligan or yob, and racailles - rabble or scum. The use of such crude language, for which M. Sarkozy steadfastly refused to apologise, drew all sorts of invective from the internet bloggers of the banlieues and public disdain from France's genteel great and good.

These two terms, with the distinctly classist and racist overtones that they carry in French, drew quiet applause from the broad swaths of French opinion that believe the voyous of the banlieues have made their uncivilised bed and they should lie in it. For every public expression of injured shock, there was a private nod of approbation: "Sarko", they thought, had got it right. Here was a politician who could be trusted to pander to their prejudices.

The debate that has swirled ever since is not only, or even mostly, about the finer points of the French language. Nor is it only about the appropriate lexical choice for a responsible politician. The moment M. Sarkozy uttered those words, he had thrown down an advance challenge for the 2007 presidential campaign - and this punctilious user of language knew what he was doing.

It may seem early for potential successors to M. Chirac to be jockeying for advantage, but the 2005 riots must be seen as a preliminary skirmish in that campaign. When, in the first days of rioting, the Prime Minister left M. Sarkozy to face the media alone, he was treating the unrest as a law and order failure that could ruin the minister's reputation. When the violence spread and he had no choice but to respond, M. de Villepin took an ethereal, quasi-presidential, view that left M. Sarkozy in charge of practicalities. And when M. Sarkozy laid into the racailles, he was not so much calling things by their proper names - which would be a laudable departure for a French politician discussing the banlieues - as shamelessly playing the demagogue. He was making a pitch for the many voters whose first inclination would be to seek refuge with the far right.

That these two would-be presidents have emerged from their brush with the banlieues effectively tied in the ratings is more than M. Sarkozy must have feared and less than M. de Villepin must have hoped. From now on, the contest between these two opposites of French politics - the upstart and the patrician, the fighter and the poet - can only hot up. In the process, unfortunately, the desperate problems of the banlieues are likely to be bypassed once again.