Immigration the new French political battlefield?
In a sure sign that last year's riots by immigrants and their children remains a sore point with the French electorate, Interior Minister Sarkozy has begun adopting a hard line on immigration and immigrants.
Sarkozy knows a good political issue when he sees it. The Left can't touch immigration other than to denounce proposed curbs and reforms, and to try to paint those supporting reform as followers of Le Pen. Good luck. France wants scapegoats (and has a real need for reform across the board) and the immigrants don't do themselves any favors with their behavior.
Some aspects of Sarkozy's proposals are controversial, such as raising barriers to families joining those already in France. But as this largely composes France's immigration, it should be addressed, hopefully in the National Assembly.
[...] It took one comment by Nicolas Sarkozy, the media-savvy interior minister with presidential ambitions, to shift the national focus from the hazardous terrain of labor market reform, where his party has serious problems, to turf that lies at the heart of his own popularity.Not the best job framing the issue, but useful to start the debate on his terms. The Left will need to respond with something beyond denunciations. Immigration is important to the voters, and they will want to see a competing solution, not lofty rhetoric on the rights of man.
"If some people are bothered by France, they shouldn't hesitate to leave a country they don't love," Sarkozy said last weekend, echoing a slogan of Jean- Marie Le Pen, the anti-immigrant leader of the far-right National Front: "France, love it or leave it." [...]
Now analysts say that Sarkozy, the only prominent Gaullist politician to come out of that crisis unscathed, is shifting the battlefield for next year's presidential election from economic reform to immigration and law and order.
A key moment will come Tuesday, when the National Assembly considers an immigration bill drafted by Sarkozy that imposes tougher conditions on unskilled, low-income immigrants while significantly easing access for highly qualified foreigners. Sarkozy went on television Thursday night to defend the bill, which has been denounced as unjust by church groups, mosques, foreigners' support groups and the French left.
"There is generosity and there is irresponsibility," he said, looking combative. "Why is France the only country in the world that doesn't have the right to choose its immigrants?"
Clever of Sarkozy to adopt some of the far Right's most appealing ideas while leaving the race baiting behind. The Left and many newspapers will attempt to tar him with with the Le Pen brush, but Sarkozy is an exceptionally nimble politician, quite able to turn the tables on his attackers.
"It's not a question of only choosing Nobel Prize winners," he continued. "We can't offer housing and jobs to all those who think France is an El Dorado." [...]
A hot-button issue since riots by second-generation immigrant youths swept France in November, immigration is likely to remain at the forefront of the political agenda in the months before the presidential vote. France has Western Europe's largest Muslim community, fed by decades of immigration from former colonies in North and West Africa. Many immigrants live in housing projects in impoverished areas outside major cities and suffer from social exclusion and disproportionate jobless rates, which fueled last year's violence. [...]
"The strategy of Nicolas Sarkozy is to move away from economic and social issues which favor the left and focus the presidential campaign on his strong points," said Vincent Tiberj, a political scientist at the center for political research at Sciences Po in Paris.
Sarkozy's bet on immigration is risky. Some of those criticizing his bill, including the church groups, traditionally vote for center-right parties. If adopted, his bill would represent a fundamental shift for France, limiting the ability of immigrant workers to have family members join them. The bill also strips illegal immigrants of the right to receive residency papers after 10 years on French territory. In contrast, it introduces a three-year work permit for educated professionals.
But according to Tiberj, the focus on immigration and crime, two traditional conservative concerns, holds two advantages: In addition to distracting from the recent crisis, it allows Sarkozy, who is also president of the Union for a Popular Movement party, to appease the party faithful who were appalled to see the government bow to the demands of the street. It also allows him to pursue a long-standing campaign to tap into a sizable pool of far-right voters, estimated at about 10 percent of the electorate over the last 20 years.
Last weekend, addressing new party members, Sarkozy openly pledged to win over far-right voters "one by one."