While the idea of politically explosive suburbs seems almost oxymoronic to an American, that's not so in France, where it's feared that today's election of Nicolas Sarkozy could ignite violent protests in peri-urban areas inhabited by the country's disadvantaged Muslim population. France's Muslims resent Sarkozy for a series of racially insensitive remarks made during the country's explosive 2005 riots and for unpopular policies he enacted as Interior Minister. Yet once the fervor dies down, it's just possible that Sarkozy's election could mark the start of the republic's first bona fide attempt to tackle its racial and ethnic tensions.
There are several reasons to think that Sarkozy is placed to tackle the challenge of integrating and improving the lot of France's Muslims:
- He knows the issues. As a former Interior Minister who was in office during France's worst-ever period of racially-fraught civil unrest last year, Sarkozy knows firsthand that his country cannot simply dismiss the problem of marginalized minorities because they live in relative isolation and are outside the country's political and economic elite. While Sarkozy seemed afraid to even visit the country's gritty ex-urban high-rises during the campaign, it's because he knows the cauldron they have become. Nothing if not ambitious, because of his personal role at the center of France's worst riots in 35 years, Sarkozy is well aware that failure to address the tensions that stoked the unrest could be his own political undoing. Sarkozy's political star survived one round of riots, but it's hard to see how he weathers a second.
- Sarkozy's offensive "get tough" rhetoric has been paired with some genuinely constructive measures to deal with tensions wrought by migration. Sarkozy's references to urban rioters as scum and his pledge to clean up troubled suburbs with the the equivalent of a water cannon triggered legitimate outrage. His proposal to expel foreigners who took part in the protests was even worse. But these are not the sum-total of Sarkozy's record on race. He has won praise by some Muslim leaders for playing an instrumental role in convening France's Council of Muslim Faith, a body dedicated to giving Muslims a political voice. He has also pushed to relax rules for government funding of mosques and elevated Muslims within the French government.
- His political positions suggest he may defy expectations. Unlike his opponent, Segolene Royal, Sarkozy has come out in favor of affirmative action for employment in France as well as ambitious training and jobs programs for youth. If he delivers in these areas, things should change: France's elite schools, universities and ministries will get more diverse; the French will see whether there historic commitments to egalite and fraternite can withstand much closer proximite -- and however awkwardly -- social life will gradually start to integrate. Sarkozy will need to ensure, however, that his proposed creation of a new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity work in support of integration, rather than intimidating minority populations or pushing them to renounce their cultural backgrounds.
- He has the credibility with conservatives to make good on his ideas. Because of his nasty language and get-tough attitude toward crime, Sarkozy is poised to be able to maintain his political base while taking progressive steps to integrate the country's Muslim population. It's the old Nixon-in-China argument, but those who know Sarkozy -- including some Muslims -- truly believe that once he is in office, the campaign rhetoric will give way in favor of a more empathic and constructive approach.
Whether Sarkozy can defy the predictions of critics depends, at bottom, on him. During the coming days and weeks as he constitutes his administration, he will have key opportunities to signal inclusivity by appointing minorities to high-ranking positions and putting measures like job programs and affirmative action at the top of the agenda. From there, he will move to the hard work of building coalitions and implementing policies. The problems -- ranging from simple racism to economic stagnation to fissures within minority communities about what integration and assimilation ought to consist of -- are deep-seated. Sarkozy cannot be expected to solve them, but he can and must be expected to start.