For much of his first 100 days in office, French Socialist President François Hollande has positioned himself as the polar opposite of his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. That’s not only come with Hollande methodically rolling back most of Sarkozy’s economic and labor reforms. It’s also been demonstrated in a calmer, sober leadership style that contrasts with Sarkozy’s provocative bling-bling presidency. Hollande, it’s clear, is projecting himself as the presidential Gallant seeking to remedy the errors and trauma of Sarkozy’s five-year Goofus reign.
Yet now Hollande finds himself accused of imitating Sarkozy by staking out one of the former President’s trademark positions: a hard line on security issues. Those claims arose this month after the Hollande government resumed controversial Sarkozy policies of rounding up and deporting illegal alien Roma — often referred to as gypsies. Echoes of the recent past also resonated this week when Hollande vowed a tough response to rioting by housing-project youths in the northern city of Amiens, which left 17 police officers injured and caused over $1.2 million in property damage.
Those moves not only inspired conservatives to mock Hollande’s government for embracing positions many of its members assailed as racist and extreme-right pandering when Sarkozy was in power, but also drew similar fire from dissenting leftists. Éric Coquerel, national secretary of the Party of the Left, complained on BFM-TV on Aug. 9 that by “pointing a finger at a convenient population like the Roma” to establish its security bona fides, the Hollande government “is following in the footsteps of its predecessor” in trying to placate French public concerns about order by hounding one of Europe’s traditional scapegoats.
Despite the current outcry, however, no one should be too surprised by Hollande refusing to fully break with Sarkozy’s law-and-order line. Along with a leftist economic and social agenda, security was a key part of Hollande’s presidential platform. Though he promised to remain open to legal immigration, Hollande said he’ll vigorously battle the inflow of illegal aliens. And while pledging financial aid for France’s most blighted housing projects like those that exploded in rioting in the early hours of Aug. 14 in Amiens, Hollande has also said he’ll beef up the police forces that patrol those increasingly lawless neighborhoods. Aware of conservative claims that the left is soft on security, Hollande has made maintaining order a priority — no matter how Sarkozy-like that sounds.
Hollande demonstrated that commitment in the wake of the Socialist legislative victory in June by tapping Manuel Valls as his Interior Minister. As mayor of the disadvantaged Paris suburb Évry, Valls’ authoritarian views on dealing with crime and delinquency — and his at times high-handed management of the town’s ethnically diverse population — earned him criticism from fellow Socialists. Be that as it may, France’s right-leaning police forces have generally applauded Valls’ ministerial initiatives — and his support of their work.
That reputation may have been responsible for the rough reception Valls received in Amiens on Tuesday, when he arrived to listen to the complaints of locals whose habitual police harassment sparked the rioting. Once he’d done that, Valls pledged to stand behind police forces in restoring order in the area — an objective Hollande later said would be achieved “using all means.” That wasn’t the end of it. On Thursday, Valls announced he’d not only end Sarkozy’s cost-cutting plan to eliminate 3,000 jobs among security forces, but will also begin hiring 500 new police officers each year starting in 2013. Earlier in the day authorities said five people had been arrested for their role in the Amiens rioting — unrest that has calmed since the arrival of police reinforcements on Tuesday.
Given the lasting traumas of the project riots that spread across France during nearly three weeks of escalating violence in 2005, it’s not surprising that neither Valls nor Hollande is taking much flak for their response to unrest in Amiens. The same can’t be said for their treatment of Roma, however. Protests over that began last week, when Valls oversaw the resumption of the Roma deportation campaign that earned Sarkozy and France the ire of E.U. officials in 2010.
French leftists and civil rights groups denounced renewed efforts to break up Roma camps and expel illegal aliens in them. The action targets the estimated 15,000 Roma in France — most from Romania and Bulgaria — who as E.U. residents can enter the country legally, but must provide proof of income to receive official permission to stay after 90 days. When it began in 2010, the drive — cited as part of a wider campaign to crack down on crime — drew comparisons to World War II Nazi deportations and was widely viewed in part as Sarkozy’s effort to woo extreme-right voters to his looming re-election bid.
Such notorious associations explain why critics — including leftists — continue denouncing the Roma expulsions even as they quietly approve of the hard line taken in Amiens. His campaign pledge to uphold order notwithstanding, Hollande may feel leaving the Roma be isn’t a political luxury he can afford. A poll taken on Tuesday ahead of Hollande’s 100 days in office showed that while 54% of respondents said they were unhappy with the President’s performance thus far, 65% said they lacked confidence in his ability to handle security matters. So despite its origins in the Sarkozy presidency, Hollande may view the rousting of Roma from squalid camps as a low-risk way of alleviating public concerns, observers say.
“A poll we conducted [on Aug. 11] shows very wide public approval of dismantling Roma camps, including on the left,” Jérôme Fourquet, director of the IFOP polling agency, told Le Monde on Tuesday — noting support of that action ranges from 59% on the far left to 93% among conservatives. “If you’re a Socialist voter today, you’re not opposed to these evictions — far from it.”
Because of that, Fourquet said Hollande’s move against the Roma is an affordable gamble to boost his security profile — and one he may simply drop and walk away from if public opinion on it swings against him. That change is unlikely to happen too quickly. Like Sarkozy before him, Hollande waited until most of France was away on summer vacation before renewing the Roma expulsions — presumably as a hedge against protests gaining much attention or traction in the general public. When it comes to security, in other words, Hollande’s big difference with Sarkozy may simply be one of bling.