Until recently, Nicolas Sarkozy was often derided as a cynical schemer driven exclusively by his own career ambitions. He was called a "bastard" and a "traitor" — by members of his own political party. But now the French Interior Minister's performance as his country's top crime fighter has made him the darling of the French public, and given him 63% approval ratings. Sarkozy, 47, redeemed his image by pushing the kind of tough law-and-order program his countrymen have been demanding. His ministry is already reporting that the new policies have caused a drop in crime and their popularity has helped make him a formidable player within the French right, while also providing him with leverage over his many leftist critics, who have been forced to mute their accusations that his anticrime crusade violates civil liberties.
Sarkozy was handed the Interior Ministry last May following the re-election of fellow Gaullist and former mentor Jacques Chirac. The insatiably ambitious Sarkozy was disheartened when Chirac passed him over for Premier in favor of centrist Jean-Pierre Raffarin, but he accepted the No. 2 spot secure in the knowledge that voter concerns over crime would keep him in the spotlight. Since then Sarkozy's relentless — critics would say excessive — crackdown on delinquency (tighter laws against prostitution, begging and loitering) has met with widespread approval among the French: 72% support the Interior Minister's disciplinary drive.
And Sarkozy's frenetic application to his work has earned him the sobriquet "Speedy." The nickname is deserved. During his first six months in the job, Sarkozy penned a new law expanding police powers, increasing their number by 18,000, and augmenting spending on law enforcement that is currently breezing through Parliament. "I just love this mania," comments conservative parliamentarian Christian Estrosi of Sarkozy. "What's important is he's convinced people, even if it took a little time."
The Interior Minister's success, and his numerous, well-publicized sorties among police units in high-crime areas, have some of his own conservative partners on guard. Many have never forgiven his "treason" of 1995, when Sarkozy abandoned the presidential aspirations of his political master, Chirac, to back the rival Gaullist bid of Edouard Balladur, a popular Prime Minister under whom Sarkozy served as Budget Minister. Sarkozy's own hopes for the premiership imploded along with Balladur's campaign, and when Chirac emerged victorious Sarkozy found himself a pariah in his own party.
The road to return has been long and humiliating, and Chirac's appointment of Raffarin as Prime Minister suggests Sarkozy's loyalties are still suspect. Similarly, when the Union for a Popular Movement — a partnership of France's conservative and centrist parties — was officially created this month, leadership was given to Chirac stalwart and Sarkozy foe Alain Juppe. That gives Juppe — whose own stint as Prime Minister ended in ignominy in 1997 — a solid base from which to confront Sarkozy in the next big campaign: to step up as the right's presidential candidate in the 2007 elections, if Chirac stands down. Have no doubt: Speedy will be running.