A major political conflict is emerging from the ongoing riots in greater Paris. Prime Minister Dominque de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, the two strongest candidates for the 2007 presidential elections, both conservatives, are coming to be seen as the embodiments of irreconcilably different approaches to a problem that has now become a crisis.
The debate so far has been over whether the government should have responded more forcefully to the riots-even possibly bringing in the army, as Sarkozy advocated-or whether de Villepin was right to "dialogue" with rioters and promise government handouts.
Sarkozy took a hard line and was caught in the crossfire when the media pounced on and then played up remarks in which he called the rioters "thugs" and "scum."
De Villepin took a softer line, employing his familiar approach of assuming the moral high ground and trying to make Sarkozy appear callous and rash. Smelling blood in the water, many on the French left called for Sarkozy's resignation.
Last week's events isolated Sarkozy, who until then had been the most popular politician in France-and the friendliest to America. But de Villepin's approach may in the long run prove more damaging. Sarkozy has proven willing to confront the problem of integrating the Arab minority, supporting tough, Giuliani-style policing and some form of affirmative action to speed minority integration into the regular economy. In contrast, de Villepin and the left have clung to the old idea of buying off alienated Muslims with statist programs. The 2007 presidential contest, and the future of France's center-right, will be shaped by this clash of visions of how to deal with France's largest domestic problem, with consequences that will resonate far beyond the Muslim ghettos that ring Paris. The fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen looks on approvingly.