Sarkozy Stands By France's Hated Immigration Minister

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Benoit Tessier / REUTERS

French Immigration Minister Eric Besson attends a debate on the issue of national identity at the Institut Montaigne in Paris, December 4, 2009.

The French newsweekly Marianne calls him "the most hated man in France." A Socialist legislator recently compared him to Pierre Laval —the wartime French official who most enthusiastically collaborated with the nation's Nazi occupiers. Such contempt isn't usually directed at someone in a rather anonymous cabinet role. But Eric Besson, the Minister for Immigration, Integration and National Identity, is different: he's currently overseeing a national debate on French identity that detractors on both the left and the right say stigmatizes minorities and immigrants. And yet, despite the fierce criticism and controversy, he's the cabinet member President Nicolas Sarkozy is relying on most to secure conservative gains in regional elections in March.

As the Marianne headline attests, there's something in Besson that just about everyone in France can detest. A former Socialist party official, Besson is considered the consummate traitor by the left after defecting from the 2007 presidential campaign of Ségolène Royal over strategy differences and throwing his support behind Sarkozy, the conservative candidate. Since then, he's embraced his new right-wing faith with the zealousness of a convert, making many long-time conservatives uncomfortable. Chief among his more hard-line moves has been the decision to hold an ongoing series of town hall meetings across France to define the French national identity. Some say the forums are already being used by disgruntled right-wingers to blame crime, rising unemployment and other social ills on minorities and immigrants. Opponents also argue that they play into the hands of Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme-right National Front (FN) party.

"Mixing national identity with immigration is an error," says conservative legislator and former Interior Minister François Baroin, who is one of several politicians on the right calling for the debates to be ended. "It's opening Pandora's box." Former conservative premiers Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin have similarly questioned the "utility" and "intellectual rigor" of the debates. And Sarkozy's own commissioner for ethnic diversity, Yazid Sebag, admitted to being "not very comfortable" with the initiative.

But Besson has at least one key figure on his side: Sarkozy. On Wednesday, the President expressed his "very strong support" for Besson, whom he described as "the target of unrivaled attacks," including from "friends on his own side." He added that Besson had only introduced the national identity debates that Sarkozy himself had wanted. Neither Besson nor Sarkozy has been shy in acknowledging that the formerly taboo topics of national identity and immigration are now such a concern among voters that they're fair game to be taken up by mainstream conservatives. Some pundits also see stealing a page from Le Pen's playbook as the best way for Sarkozy to woo FN voters to his camp ahead of the March elections, just as he did in 2007 when his presidential campaign took up anti-immigration and law-and-order platforms to win over far-right voters. Plus, Besson has argued, if you steal FN voters, you will eventually kill the party.

"We should have never abandoned values that are part of our Republican patrimony to the National Front," Besson told RTL radio in defending the debates last month. The sharp-tongued Besson has slapped down his leftist detractors with mockery and insults, and even dismissed the growing criticism from the right as "café clap-trap." In doing so, he has not only shown the same defiant pugnacity that has become his boss's trademark, but has also become Sarkozy's most effective political operative handling an explosive issue. "Once he bolted the Socialist Party, Besson's very political existence depended not only on joining Sarkozy's cause, but hanging on to his coat-tails as high as they'd take him," says a former adviser to conservative politicians who requested anonymity. "No one else would dirty themselves with this nasty, divisive electoral ploy over national identity, which made it just the job for Besson. He's convinced the sky's his limit, so long as he does whatever Sarkozy orders."

But there's a risk to that: the tactic may backfire. Sarkozy's approval ratings have fallen to a record low of 39% since the identity debates were announced. Meanwhile, a poll this week showed that 55% of people consider the debates "not necessary." And two months ago, 64% of respondents in another poll called them merely "an electoral tool." The possibility that this could lead to a spanking for the right in the March elections has only grown as other right-wing politicians have followed Besson's lead with provocative statements of their own. Earlier this month, a conservative mayor in eastern France used the identity debates to describe immigrants in France as "10 million people we pay to do jacks---." And on Dec. 14, Secretary of State for Families Nadine Morano caused an uproar by appearing to characterize young Muslim men in France as job-slacking, slang-speaking louts who need to love their country more.

The outcry over such statements — and the debates themselves — has many conservative officials worried that the topic of national identity may alienate far more mainstream voters than it seduces FN backers. If this happens, it could produce a very bad March surprise for the right —something that could cause Sarkozy to bolt from his friend's side and join the growing ranks of Besson haters in the country.