In recent weeks the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has renewed its interest in national security with particular vigour. In its most visible and inflammatory policy, Paris began the voluntary deportation of Roma gypsies back to Romania on Thursday.
According to some French analysts, the government’s recent efforts targeting immigrants are part of President Sarkozy’s bid to charm voters on the far-right ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
“In his 2007 election campaign Sarkozy emphasised the issues of immigration and security. It’s what enabled him to win,” says Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in France’s extreme right.
“But ever since this year’s regional elections, Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party has feared a comeback of the [far-right] National Front party”.
Now, Camus says, Sarkozy is trying to send a new series of strong signs to the electorate that usually supports the National Front.
He points to a plethora of incendiary security policy ideas that include legislation to strip citizens of foreign origin of their French nationality if found guilty of serious offences and punishing parents of delinquent youths.
Camus agrees that a broad majority in France generally supports tightened security policies, but also notes that opinion polls show significant doubt among the French over the effectiveness of these policy ideas.
Gambling with France’s image
Immigration Minister Eric Besson, admitted on Tuesday that stripping an individual of his French nationality because of polygamy –a policy endorsed by the minister of the interior- would be “legally complex” to achieve.
Besson also said that members of the Roma community who are being deported from France could easily come back to the country.
“The government’s ideas are coming face to face with reality,” says Camus. “What Eric Besson said [about Roma] yesterday is absolutely true: the free circulation of people and property within Europe is a reality”.
On Wednesday a spokesman for the EU Rights and Justice Commissioner said his group is closely scrutinising the French government's campaign to expel members of the Roma community to ensure EU rules are respected.
“For France’s image, I believe this is not a winning strategy,” adds Camus.
Judged on record, not deportations
Above all, Sarkozy and his party are going to be held accountable for the election promises made in 2007. Five years on, Sarkozy, as the incumbent president, will have to run on his record of results.
“The administration will have to translate all his election promises into concrete measures, otherwise people will say it was only talk,” says sociologist Michel Wieviorka.
Focusing on security will deflect some of the French president’s failure to increase purchasing power -the key promise of his first presidential campaign. But even on the security front, Wieviorka says, Sarkozy has to play cautiously.
“Sarkozy has been working on these policies since 2002, when he was the interior minister. He won’t be able to pin his failures on the left”.
For Wieviorka, France’s ruling centre-right is moving away from the glittery “bling-bling” optimism of a few years ago to an increasingly bitter and anxious discourse. “The government is desperate,” he insists.