Entering his fourth year in office, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has to cope with a public increasingly wary of his policies and political challenges from within his own party.
Sarkozy was elected in 2007 with some 53 percent of the vote, in part because he campaigned to strengthen internal security.
The capital of Paris had witnessed a string of violent incidents in its banlieues just two years prior. Pressured by the rising popularity of France’s xenophobic National Front, the conservative Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) adopted a more assertive stance on immigration under Sarkozy’s leadership.
In recent weeks, that position has backfired.
The French government has been deporting hundreds of Roma and Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria, offering them €300 as incentive to leave France.
The policy is not without precedent. Some 400,000 Roma are believed to live in France as part of established communities. An estimated 12,000 roam the country illegally. Last year, more than 10,000 were sent back.
The expulsion strategy followed two other controversial proposals. One is to strip criminals of foreign birth of their nationality, the other to imprison the parents of juvenile delinquents.
Opponents argue the government is violating the Roma’s freedom of movement, which, as citizens of the European Union, they enjoy. Left-wing politicians wonder if Sarkozy, whose approval rating has plummeted, may not be using the situation for political gain.
If that’s the case, Sarkozy miscalculated. His popularity has continued to sink.
Left rising, right divided
The left has been on the rise since March, when, in regional elections, it won more than half the votes nationwide and managed to secure majorities in nearly all of France’s département.
Unsurprisingly, the losses have caused discord inside Sarkozy’s UMP.
Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin has alleged that most cabinet members are “unhappy and uncomfortable” with the president’s national-security strategy.
Another former prime minister and sitting senator, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has expressed similar concern about Sarkozy’s “drift to the right” and what he described as a “ridiculous” security policy.
The president has tried to boost his appeal with populist law-and-order measures, but the upcoming presidential election is more likely to be dominated by economic issues.
Sarkozy has abandoned laissez-faire and taken to complaining that “nothing has gone to labor” in the last decade.
The president has also led the effort for a European bailout of Greece — keeping the International Monetary Fund out.
The IMF is led by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a prominent French Socialists who is contemplating a presidential bid.
Other contenders include Martine Aubry, the daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors, and François Bayrou, a centrist.