Thursday’s tumultuous row with the Commission in Brussels – and the subsequent falling-out with Germany’s Angela Merkel – has left France with a badly tarnished international reputation, with newspapers across Europe turning against Sarkozy with a rare abandon this weekend.
But in France, the picture is more complicated. French Euroscepticism is a strong force and many voters instinctively approve when a president picks a fight with an unelected Brussels apparatchik – especially one unwise enough to draw comparisons with the second world war.
“A large part of the electorate, especially on the right, does not react negatively when the president takes action on an issue – the Roma – which they feel is an important one. And the fact that there are tensions with an EU Commission widely seen as ineffectual does Sarkozy no harm at all,” said Francois Miquet-Marty of the ViaVoice political analysis agency.
For Gael Sliman, of the BVA pollsters, “Taking a stand against a Europe that is seen as overly soft and liberal will reinforce his credibility.”
Two polls out this weekend reveal a France that is bitterly polarised over the Roma issue, with one half believing that by targeting an ethnic group Sarkozy has betrayed the Republic’s founding principles, and the other applauding his decisive action to resolve a growing social problem.
According to an Opinionway poll in the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper, 56% of the population oppose moves by Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding to open legal proceedings against France for its expulsions of Roma gypsies.
However a second survey for Le Parisien found that the same small majority believed Brussels “had the right” to criticise French policy. According to Jean-Daniel Levy of the CSA polling group, this shows that many people “have a distinct feeling of discomfort over the policy towards the Roma”.
Sarkozy launched his new policy at a speech in Grenoble in July, following an outbreak of violence by a group of “traveller” youths in central France. Since then more than 1000 Roma have been sent back by plane to Bulgaria and Romania, and scores of their illegal encampments closed.
The government says that the expulsions are in accordance with French and EU law. Though Bulgaria and Romania are EU members, their citizens do not yet enjoy complete freedom of movement across the 27 states – so if after three months in France Roma men have no means of supporting their families they can legally be sent back.
However France’s critics are concerned because of what they see as the deliberate targeting of an ethnic group. A government circular sent to regional prefects said that police were to make the Roma a “priority” in their closures of illegal camps. For many, this breaks a human rights taboo.
What angers critics further is the sense that Sarkozy exploited the Roma issue for political ends, making a scapegoat of a vulnerable group in society in order to draw attention away from his declining popularity. In fact Roma people have been expelled in large numbers – but with minimal publicity – regularly over the past two years. So why did the president suddenly make an issue out of it?
Not for the first time, Sarkozy’s tactic is to manoeuvre his enemies into positions and statements which he can characterise as extreme, and thus allay criticism of his own controversial policies. All too often, his enemies seem happy to oblige.
With his opinion rating at all-time lows, a sputtering economy and the continuing fall-out from the Bettencourt financial scandal, Sarkozy has identified two policy areas around which to build a bid for re-election in 2012: pension reform and law and order.
On both he is counting on – and getting – vociferous opposition from the left. On pension reform the Socialist party has promised to repeal his newly passed law raising the minimum retirement age to 62 – a commitment the president can easily portray as irresponsible and unrealistic.
And on the Roma, Sarkozy has now successfully provoked an EU commissioner to compare French policy with German treatment of Jews and Roma in the second world war. Again the extravagance of the reaction works in his favour, because it makes his opponents – not him – seem unreasonable.
The president may therefore be right when he sees the Roma as working in his favour. But he also needs to tread very carefully. He may indeed be consolidating the right-wing vote, but at the expense of an increasingly polarised electorate: and that can only bode ill for the future.