For the past five months, French politics have been viewed largely through one prism: the multicoloured rivalry between Dominique de Villepin, prime minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, his ambitious interior minister, ahead of their battle for the presidency in 2007.

Their every word and action has been scrutinised by the French media for hidden political meaning and reciprocal slights. And so it was when riots first erupted in the Parisian suburbs on October 27.

As cars and stores burned in the following days, Mr Sarkozy’s rivals appeared happy to let him swirl in the turmoil he appeared to worsen with comments that only upset many rioters – “scum” and “riffraff”, as he called them – further. The image of Mr Sarkozy being pelted with cans by incensed protesters on his nightly visits to violence-torn suburbs dented his popular image. Initially, at least, Mr de Villepin and his patron, President Jacques Chirac, kept a low profile as the calls mounted for Mr Sarkozy to resign.

But the unprecedented violence, which has now spread to 274 towns across France, has changed the stakes of the political game. This latest crisis is not just a test of the interior minister; it is a cry of defiance against the institutions of the Fifth Republic. The escalating disorder challenges the credibility of France’s model of immigration and integration and its entire political class. In the analysis of Le Monde newspaper, reality has intruded on the “vaudeville” that has recently passed for French politics.

Luc Chatel, spokesman for the governing UMP party, called yesterday for cross-party unity in the face of the latest violence. “The choice is not between Villepin, Sarkozy and the others, but between the Republic and chaos,” he said.

In recent days, Mr de Villepin has weighed in heavily, chairing emergency security meetings, calling for dialogue and urging calm. He appeared on television last night with a fresh appeal to end the violence.

The night before, Mr Chirac ended his silence on the matter and spoke to the press, reinforcing Mr Sar-kozy’s twin message of firmness in the face of the violence and fairness in the face of social deprivation.

“Those who want to sow violence or fear will be caught, tried and punished,” the French president said. “But we also understand very well that we must
move towards respect for each individual, justice and equality of opportunity. We are all completely determined to go down this road and pursue the efforts that are already under way in this domain.”

How events unfold over the next few days will determine whether the issue of urban discontent subsides once again below the surface of French political life or permanently alters the debate ahead of the presidential elections.

Mr Sarkozy has suggested that the riots only reinforce his calls for a “rupture” with the failed policies of the past and his arguments that the French social model needs to be radically overhauled. Yesterday, he said that France needed to revise its immigration and integration policies, which have been a problem for several decades.

“The French model, in every aspect, needs to be fundamentally rebuilt,” he said.

However, Dominique Reynié, a professor at the Paris-based Institute of Political Studies, says it is too early to say whether Mr Sarkozy will be the political beneficiary or the victim of the latest events.

“The rivalry between Sarkozy and Villepin is now a secondary issue,” he says. “This is no longer a crisis of public order, it is a more fundamental political crisis. For the moment, no one knows how it will evolve.”

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