Love It or Leave It: Xenophobia Goes Mainstream

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Sarkozy appears to have no qualms about exploiting such sentiments. "We looked at the numbers," says Manuel Aeschlimann, a deputy in the National Assembly and a key Sarkozy aide. "Sarkozy looks good on urban security, but his profile was less developed on immigration." That is now bound to change, Aeschlimann suggests. "During the last presidential elections in 2002, the hidden issue was security: [Socialist candidate Lionel] Jospin underestimated the problem and got trapped. In 2007, it will be immigration," he says. "This is not the time to talk about giving foreigners the right to vote. It's a time for rational and humane restrictions on immigration, and that's what Sarkozy is proposing."

No question, then, that the spoiler of the 2002 presidential elections, National Front dinosaur Le Pen, is part of Sarkozy's calculations. Le Pen's personal popularity has shot up to 14% in recent months, thanks, apparently, to the riots in the banlieues last fall and the government's capitulation to the protests over labor-market reform last month. Villiers, whose Movement for France presents a somewhat less incendiary alternative to Le Pen, landed a media coup last month with his claim that Muslim radicals had systematically infiltrated the ground crew and support staff of Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. Official sources within France's police intelligence agency have contested Villiers' sources, but the prospect that he could be even partially right means Sarkozy — whose responsibility is at issue — can't ignore him outright.

Still, Sarkozy's initiative has left some puzzled. Until now, immigration hasn't been at the top of the French public's list of concerns: unemployment, crime, high taxes and even fear of the future trump it. "Sarkozy is on the left, then he's on the right, then he's right of the right," says Stéphane Rozès, director of the polling institute CSA-Opinions. "The only consistency is that he's out in front: he won't let anyone deprive him of setting the agenda." That may get him his immigration law, but as the presidential race develops over the next 12 months, he will have to win back some of the social-minded centrists who still see generosity as a quintessential trait of the French state. But relying on that moderate bloc anywhere in Europe during these "Love It or Leave It" days could prove a shaky proposition indeed.
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