A political contest like top-level football

CHARLES ROBERTS It was back in November 2005 that the poor suburbs of Paris exploded into fire and violence. In the weeks that followed, major towns and cities waited for nightfall, thankful for the reassurance of the gendarmerie nearby on full alert.


It was back in November 2005 that the poor suburbs of Paris exploded into fire and violence. In the weeks that followed, major towns and cities waited for nightfall, thankful for the reassurance of the gendarmerie nearby on full alert.

Paris also had an additional safety measure standing by - one Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister. Typical of his style, he was everywhere at once, and already planning how best to deal with the fire raisers.

He's gone up in the world since then. Only if you've been away on Mars since the first outbreak of the banlieues (suburbs) destruction, could you have escaped the fact that this week he becomes President of the Republic.

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The burning of thousands of cars gradually petered out, as did the hand-to-hand fighting between insurgents and police. Not to mention the destruction of thousands of cars and buses.

With the disappearance of the story from the Press, the banlieues affair quickly became history. Instead there was the intensive coverage, sometimes bitter, of the fight for the Presidency.

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A couple of nights before the final result, the woman who lost, Segolene Royal, made a speech warning that if Sarkozy won, there would be much violence. She was right. For three nights, rioting dominated the poor suburbs again.

Meanwhile, left-wing youths clashed with police in Paris. Their hate of the man was patent. A T-shirt stamped with “Youth against Sarkozy” became a badge of honour.

Then, last Thursday, in a rural location, came an attack which infuriated all who saw it. Overnight, several pairs of hands set to to burn to the ground part of the village school.

I say “part of the school” because the canteen served as a convenient, defined space. The rest of the school was virtually untouched, save for smoke marks. There's no doubt, as far as the gendarmerie are concerned, that it was a criminal fire.

Fortunately, the elementary section was equipped with an aluminium door, which limited the smoke access. The canteen, however, was burned, literally, to the ground.

“It's lamentable,” said the mayor. “It's thoroughly wicked to attack something that belongs to everybody.” He pondered a moment, then added darkly: “We need to put some order back into this country.” A sentiment which M Sarkozy would hold as strongly as does the mayor.

At the end of last week, “Sarko” and his team were already working on the transition period from Jacques Chirac, so that all will go smoothly.

He also found time, by all accounts, to fix an evening meeting with Tony Blair, “followed by an informal dinner”.

He then made an innocent move which, in retrospect, was not very wise. After the exhausting rigours of whipping up the support of the electorate nationwide, he badly needed a short break. It came in the form of an invitation for a break of a couple of days on board a luxury yacht off Malta.

The owner of the vessel was a wealthy businessman. The stay on board was short, and at 8.30 the next morning, the presidential car was waiting at the quay.

Inside were two key members of the inner circle of the new President - Francois Fillion, who stands a good chance of being appointed prime minister; and Claude Guéant, former campaign manager, and probably future secretary general of the presidential palace, the Elysée.

Nicolas Sarkozy has emphatically made it clear he wants to be “the president of all the French people”. He will work to create an open government with personalities of right and left. He wants the best people to succeed in these functions.

Everybody knows the corner into which he has built himself. Failure to achieve what he has promised must inevitably bring disaster, to him and his government.

In the four years I have been here permanently in France, I have been astonished at the general level of political involvement and excitement.

But the presidential election was something different, even in France. No sign of British-type apathy here. It was more like a top-level football match. I spent hours glued to television and radio, and more still reading authoritative books, magazines and newspapers.

And I, being a foreigner, don't even have the vote, for goodness sake. (I have another three years to wait for that.) But that became secondary, with the two leading contestants providing unbroken high drama - Madame Ségolène Royal, the Socialist bombshell and the right wing's charismatic Nicolas Sarkozy.

Oh for a bit of political charisma in Britain. But with Mr Brown in the chair, not much hope of that.

t cvr_in_france@hotmail.com

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