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International Herald Tribune

Sarkozy cancels visit to suburb over protest


By Elaine Sciolino
Thursday, April 5, 2007

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
Demonstrators in Lyon on Thursday let Sarkozy know he was not welcome there.

PARIS:
Nicolas Sarkozy, presidential candidate of the governing conservative
party, abruptly canceled a campaign visit to a middle-class
neighborhood of Lyon on Thursday as protesters gathered there.

Some of his supporters in the neighborhood shouted "Sarkozy!
President!" – but their voices were drowned out by about 100
demonstrators carrying signs that read, "Sarkozy, you are not welcome
here."

Some of the protesters shouted "racaille" and "Kärcher," two words
that have come to be identified with Sarkozy. In 2005, he vowed to
clean out young troublemakers from one Paris suburb with a high-powered
hose used to wash off graffiti that is sold under the brand name of
Kärcher. He also pledged to rid the suburbs of racaille, or thugs.

The protest was emblematic of his difficult relationship with France’s ethnic Arab and African populations.

Promoting a law-and-order image in his role as head of the Interior
Ministry, a job he left last month, Sarkozy alienated a huge swath of
inhabitants in the troubled ethnic pockets of France.

Sarkozy, who is about even in the polls against two main rivals in
the first round of the French elections, has kept away from the tough
neighborhoods in the suburbs that were swept in a three-week orgy of
violence in late 2005.

The demonstration Thursday underscores what some of his opponents
claim: that he is too politically radioactive politically to venture
there.

Sarkozy headed straight from the airport to the next stop on his
itinerary: an upholstery warehouse in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon.
There, he said that the cancellation of the visit was a result of the
late arrival of his plane, not the protest.

He also promised to visit the Lyon neighborhood, Croix-Rousse,
suggesting that the protest was staged by left-wing activists. "I am
going to go there later," he said. "I wouldn’t want to disappoint the
extreme left."

Still, Sarkozy has not fulfilled a promise to return to Argenteuil,
where he used the term "thugs" and was pelted with bottles and rocks in
2005. A planned trip was canceled after the police found gasoline bombs
in an apartment complex.

In the presidential elections five years ago, popular anxiety about
crime and security issues helped propel Jean-Marie Le Pen, the
far-right leader of the National Front, into the runoff, where he was
soundly defeated by President Jacques Chirac.

This time, the "suburb problem" is a volatile factor. Voter
registration has increased dramatically in ethnic neighborhoods, as in
parts of the rest of France, but there is no reliable data on whether
and how people will vote.

On Thursday, Marine Le Pen, who is director of her father’s current
campaign for president, ventured into the Paris suburb of
Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the most violent suburbs during the unrest in
2005. About 15 protesters tried to disrupt her visit, shouting "F like
Fascist, N like Nazi." After a brief scuffle, the protesters dispersed.

Her father is campaigning on an anti-immigrant, protectionist
platform of France-for-the-French, but at the same time he is courting
the vote of second- and third-generation immigrants.

"I don’t find it astonishing at all that French of foreign origin
join us," she said. "They will benefit" like everyone else" from the
plan to put French citizens first.

The issue of security was brought to the forefront of the
presidential campaign last week after an eight-hour standoff between
protesters and police at a train station in Paris.

The Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, accused Sarkozy of using
repressive measures in tackling crime and allowing the problems of the
suburbs to get worse in his tenure as interior minister.

François Bayrou, a centrist who is the main third-party candidate,
has also seized on Sarkozy’s vulnerability. In a recent interview with
the popular daily Le Parisien, said of Sarkozy, "Five years in the
Interior Ministry and he can no longer enter parts of the French
suburbs."

In another development, Azouz Begag, the minister for equal opportunities, resigned Thursday.

In a statement, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Begag had stepped down in order "to be able to speak freely again."

Begag has endorsed Bayrou and not Sarkozy for president. Begag, who
is of Algerian origin, has publicly criticized Sarkozy for branding
delinquent youths "thugs."

Despite Sarkozy’s difficulties, a new telephone poll by Ifop
released on March 31 said that 43 percent of French voters believe he
is the most credible candidate on security, followed by 15 percent for
Royal and 8 percent for Le Pen. The poll of 958 registered voters was
carried out March 29 and 30.

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