France turns nasty as election battle looms
WHEN French police moved to arrest a fare-dodger who had punched two ticket inspectors at the Gare de Nord station in Paris on Tuesday evening, it sparked a riot.
A crowd of onlookers, angered by what they said was the officers' unnecessarily forceful approach, intervened and then about 100 youths went on the rampage, smashing windows and attacking vending machines and shops for seven hours before police resorted to tear gas.
The scenes were reminiscent of the three weeks of rioting that shook France in November 2005. And with less than a month to go before France votes for its next president, this latest example of violent unrest has turned into a major election issue as the three leading candidates seized on the incident to offer their interpretation.
At the core of the debate is the centre-right government's candidate and current front-runner, the hard-line former interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who stepped down from his ministerial post on Monday to concentrate on his campaign.
Socialist candidate Sgolne Royal and centrist Francois Bayrou both blamed Tuesday's clashes on Mr Sarkozy's tough stance on law and order.
"Of course travellers should pay for their tickets. But when a simple ticket check degenerates into such violent confrontations it proves that something isn't right," Ms Royal said.
Mr Bayrou said: "We've got to this situation because for a long time the police has been used exclusively as a force for repression - ever since the arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy at the interior ministry."
The unrest is the second incident in as many weeks in which passers-by have tackled police in an attempt to prevent them making an arrest. Last week, parents clashed with police in the Paris neighbourhood of Belleville after officers tried to arrest an illegal immigrant, an elderly Chinese man whose granddaughter attends a nearby primary school.
According to parents who witnessed the scene, police unleashed guard dogs on the protesters and sprayed them with tear gas in the presence of young children.
Observers note that both incidents illustrate a growing distrust and dislike of police who are rarely seen as being approachable or friendly in France. Paris maintains a high-profile police presence. Convoys of riot police, the infamous CRS, are parked along the Seine and can frequently be seen racing through city streets.
What the latest incidents show is a new willingness to defy openly the forces of law and order.
A spokesman for the police union, Alliance, said that hostility to the police is increasingly widespread in France. "The principle of intervening when other people are arrested is becoming general," said Dominique Achispon.
"There is an instinct to challenge everything in uniform."
Mr Sarkozy defended Tuesday's police actions, saying they were justified in arresting the alleged fare dodger who had jumped a ticket barrier.
"I want to tell the French that I will not be on the side of fraudsters, cheats, dishonest people ... those who think that in order to be heard they must demolish a train station and break public equipment paid for by tax-payers," he said.
Mr Sarkozy earned his reputation as France's hard-line "crime tsar" in 2005, when France suffered its worst riots in 40 years as youths of mainly immigrant origin protested for almost three weeks against discrimination and alleged police harassment in the country's poor and run-down suburbs, leading the government to declare a state of emergency.
Youths have consistently blamed Mr Sarkozy for pouring petrol on the flames of revolt by describing the delinquents as "rabble" who should be "cleaned out with a power hose".
Since then, Mr Sarkozy has been widely hated in the suburbs. Paradoxically though, a surprising number of people in those poor areas say they will vote for him, particularly those of immigrant origin who are swayed by his commitment to racial equality.
In an effort to win the suburban youth vote, Mr Sarkozy has pledged a fresh start in education and training for the young and the unemployed in the banlieues.
As for Ms Royal, she has vowed to give every young French person an interest-free loan of 10,000 (6,766) from the state to set them up in adulthood.
Mr Bayrou has made few promises, but pledges to treat young people from the suburbs with respect.
"The most important thing is respect - to look at people here as citizens," he insisted. "They ask to be seen as people and as citizens in exactly the same way as any other French man or woman."
His approach seems to be winning over a difficult constituency which is notoriously disinclined to vote.
The situation in France's troubled suburbs is complex and it is hard to predict who will win the most votes there.
The result will depend on how many people finally turn out on 22 April and 6 May. All candidates are working hard to persuade young voters that the ballot box is a mightier weapon than a Molotov cocktail in ensuring their problems are heard.
Billionaire attacks 'Marxist' thinking on economy
FRANCE'S richest man has waded into the country's presidential election debate by attacking a "social-Marxist culture" he said still dominated much thinking about the economy.
Bernard Arnault, right, ranked by US magazine Forbes as the seventh richest person in the world with an estimated fortune of $26 billion, said France needed a sea-change in attitudes if it was to grow faster and create more jobs.
"If we want to get France out of its current situation, with its debt and unemployment, the only way is to relaunch the economy by profoundly changing the approach of the last nearly 25 years," Mr Arnault told Europe 1 radio in an interview. "I think there remains in France a basic social-Marxist culture which has totally disappeared among our main competitors," said Mr Arnault, who controls the luxury goods group, Christian Dior.
In the past executives have complained that French political leaders have an anti-business bias, but most have stayed on the sidelines during the election campaign.
However, Mr Arnault broke ranks on Monday, taking aim at the French left, which has traditionally viewed big business with suspicion and has regularly railed against generous executive salaries, stock option plans and hefty dividend payouts.
"I think the left in France is archaic from this point of view compared with the left in Britain," said Mr Arnault, who is an adviser on international business issues to Chancellor Gordon Brown. It would be difficult "in the current climate" to play a similar role in France, he said.
The socialist candidate Sgolne Royal said last year capitalists "have to be frightened" to deter them from relocating business to cheaper labour markets, while Nicolas Sarkozy, left, the frontrunner in the campaign, who presents himself as pro-business, has revealed strong interventionist tendencies.
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