Nicolas Sarkozy

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Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s most controversial politician, has always walked a fine line between bravery and recklessness.

In 1993, as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Mr Sarkozy negotiated face-to-face with a hostage-taker calling himself the Human Bomb, who was threatening to kill a classroom of nursery school children and their teacher. After hours of high drama that gripped the nation, Mr Sarkozy succeeded in negotiating the release of several children before the police stormed the building and shot the hostage-taker dead.

As interior minister, Mr Sarkozy has shown similar physical courage over the past two weeks as riots have raged in France’s urban ghettoes. He has been unflinching in his support of the frontline police, making frequent visits to the worst hotspots. He has also displayed considerable moral courage in calling for a radical rethink of France’s flawed social model and urging compatriots to do more to integrate deprived minorities.

But Mr Sarkozy’s apparent recklessness has surfaced too, as he has sought to boost his populist reputation. His dismissal of the rioters as “yobs” and “scum” who needed to be cleansed with a power hose incensed the youths on the streets, intensifying the violence. Many of the rioters screamed they would only stop when Mr Sarkozy apologised or resigned. His remark was also leapt on by his political opponents – as well as rival members of the government – as further evidence of Mr Sarkozy’s intemperate character and unsuitability for high office.

The minister’s subsequent announcement that he would deport 120 foreigners convicted of rioting once they had served their prison terms also provoked protest from the political left. Civil rights campaigners argued that many of those arrested, mostly from Arab and African countries, had long-term residents’ visas and would be punished twice for the same crime. Mr Sarkozy’s seemingly spontaneous policy reversal on this issue of “double punishment” was pandering to the hardline nationalist right, they said.

Could this impetuous streak cost Mr Sarkozy the French presidency, the political prize he has dreamed of since his days as a young Gaullist militant some 30 years ago? In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this year, Jack Lang, a leading figure in the opposition Socialist party, predicted as much, saying Mr Sarkozy’s recklessness would be his undoing. “Sarkozy will be his own worst enemy. He goes over the top,” Mr Lang said. “He has a lot of talent. He is a great professional. He is intelligent and has fabulous energy. He is brave. But you sense he is a little foolish. It is a paradox that this man who is the minister of security will create a sense of insecurity.”

Naturally, Mr Sarkozy, who has demonstrated great resilience during his political career, fiercely rebuts the charges against him. The 50-year-old son of an aristocratic Hungarian immigrant father argues that the riots in France’s deprived suburbs – the country’s worst domestic violence since the second world war – are further proof that its social model has broken down and needs fixing. As president of France’s ruling UMP party, Mr Sarkozy has drawn up detailed policy proposals to create a more entrepreneurial economy, a more flexible labour market and a more fluid society. He has also opened debates about whether positive discrimination could help integrate ethnic minorities and whether the 1905 law separating church and state should be revised to help assimilate France’s 5m Muslims.

“The enduring violence is justification for the rupture that I am calling for,” he said this week. “We need to break free from the politics practised in this country for the past 40 years, which have, unfortunately, failed.”

Mr Sarkozy defends his populism as a reflection of voters’ anguish. His harsh rhetoric against criminals and tough stance on security issues may not appeal to the pampered, inward-looking Parisian elite, he suggests, but they echo the concerns of the electorate. Mainstream politicians must respond to the challenge presented by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the hardline nationalist leader, who came second in the 2002 presidential elections running on an aggressive anti-crime, anti-immigrant ticket.

In parliament this year, Mr Sarkozy taunted his Socialist opponents: “You want to be understood as givers of lessons. I want to be heard by the people. I use words that are understood by everyone. You say ‘populism’, I reply ‘people’.”

The opinion polls show that Mr Sarkozy’s tough approach continues to win the support of the public. But the short and physically unimposing Mr Sarkozy has undoubtedly been losing political ground to his chief rightwing rival, Dominique de Villepin. The tall, patrician prime minister may never have held elected office but he strikes French voters as looking like a president out of central casting.

Mr de Villepin has also shown he can match Mr Sarkozy’s talent for political theatricality. The prime minister’s decision this week to revive a 1955 law allowing regional prefects to declare curfews produced a big impact, even though it was opposed by Mr Sarkozy and did not appear to have much effect on the ground.

The prime minister’s move also raised the unsettling prospect that the two politicians will now play policy leap-frog as they hop towards the starting line for the 2007 presidential race. Whereas Mr Sarkozy’s ability to mobilise his rightwing base may make him the stronger candidate in the first round of the two-stage contest, Mr de Villepin’s more reassuring style and centrist politics would surely make him the more potent candidate in the second round, which is decided by a head-to-head poll.

Worryingly for Mr Sarkozy, there are signs that the French media that once used to eat out of his hand are turning more critical. Several magazines have run cover stories about Mr Sarkozy’s political slide. By French standards, the press has also made much of his private life, chronicling the break-up of his marriage. His wife, Cécilia, has been pictured on the front of Paris Match magazine in the company of another man.

However, as the events of the past two weeks have proved, there is far more at stake for France than just a political parlour game between two hyper-ambitious men. The government is confronted by an enormous social and economic challenge.

In a television interview on Thursday night, Mr Sarkozy defended his tough approach to security issues – as well as his description of rioters as “scum” – arguing that his populism served a purpose.

“Do you think it’s amusing to return home with fear in your stomach?” he asked.

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