No French fluke

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PARIS.

Is the ground staff at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris rife with hundreds of Islamist radicals, acting as sleeper cells and preparing to launch devastating terror attacks? That was the striking allegation from Philippe de Villiers,headofthe anti-immigrant Movement for France (MPF) party late last month.

The candidates for France’s next presidential election (tentatively April 2007) have begun jockeying for position, and Mr. de Villiers debuted with a bang with a new book “The Mosques of Roissy.” Obviously, the mind and pulse race at the thought of potential al Qaeda infiltration of de Gaulle, which has been a recurring battlefield in the war on terror. It is largely forgotten that a precursor to the September 11 attacks occurred just before Christmas 1994 when Air France Flight 8969 was hijacked shortly after it took off from Algiers en route to de Gaulle. It was flown to Marseille, where hijackers wanted it to be refueled in order to crash it into the Eiffel Tower. The plot ended when French commandos raided the plane and shot the hijackers dead.

Also, it was on a flight from de Gaulle to Miami in December 2001 that al Qaeda’s Richard Reid tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes onboard American Airlines Flight 63, before being subdued by passengers. In 2002, airport police arrested a baggage handler, a French citizen of Algerian origin, after a search of his car revealed a handgun, a machine gun, five bars of plastic explosives and two detonators.

Shortly before Mr. de Villiers’ book was published, France’s Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and Justice Minister toured the airport and assured the public that Mr. de Villiers was vastly overstating the threat. Mr. Sarkozy said only 122 of about 83,000 ground staff were being watched and that airport security had already dealt with the matter. Islamic columnists now claim that Muslim workers avoid the airport’s prayer room for fear that the police may see them as “potential terrorists.”

The early splash by Mr. de Villiers suggests that the upcoming French elections will be dramatically different than the ones in the United Kingdom and Germany last year, where the candidates focused nearly entirely on economic issues. Al Qaeda was barely mentioned in Tony Blair’s reelection campaign; the Liberal Democrats were left grousing about Iraq. Similarly, Germany’s center-right candidate Angela Merkel sporadically and quietly rebuked Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s America-bashing, but rarely focused on foreign policy. The closest any German candidate came to addressing the broader war on Islamist terrorism was an anti-Iraq-war Social Democrat candidate who obnoxiously and callously used images of American-flag draped coffins in his campaign ad.

It’s odd that after the themes of security, protection of innocent lives and aggressive pursuit of terrorists put President Bush over the top in 2004, so few foreign political candidates have tread that ground in their own campaigns. But next year, France might be the exception.

In the most recent Ipsos poll of 939 French adults Mr. Sarkozy would qualify for the runoff against Segolene Royal, the Socialist. The two further-right candidates who have campaigned on vigorously anti-immigration platforms, Jean-Marie Le Pen gets 10 percent, and Mr. de Villiers gets 5 percent.

But if Mr. Sarkozy is not the nominee of the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement party, and instead the currently widely disliked Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is, the poll looks dramatically different. Ms. Royal is the top winner with 34 percent; Mr. de Villepin barely makes the runoff with 15 percent, and Mr. Le Pen gets 14 percent — a statistical tie. (Mr. Le Pen made the runoff against Jacques Chirac last time; French political elites contended his surprising performance was a fluke that would never occur again. Well, c’est la vie.) Mr. de Villiers also jumps to 10 percent in this array of candidates. The poll found that in a head-to-head matchup, Ms. Royal holds a two-point edge over Mr. Sarkozy, and a 24-point advantage over Mr. de Villepin.

To many thoroughly dissatisfied French voters, the election can’t come soon enough. The last year has seen a widespread collapse in the public’s confidence in its elected leaders, from the surprising referenda rejection of the EU constitution, to the chaotic, frightening car-burning riots of last fall, to the disturbing “Clearstream” political scandal, which day by day unraveling political intrigue and corruption of Byzantine complexity. Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was the recent national paralysis spurred by young people protesting violently to stop a law that would permit employers to fire them at will until they’re age 26.

In this mess, Mr. Sarkozy appears to be the only elected official with the bravade to take on these problems directly. He called the French rioters “scum” (it says much about French politics that this label is considered controversial) and ordered those who were not citizens deported, even if they had residency visas. He backs a tougher immigration law that would aim to attract skilled workers while keeping less skilled ones out; the law easily passed the National Assembly and will be taken up by the Senate shortly.

There is some belief in France that Mr. Chirac may dump Mr. de Villepin this summer and make Mr. Sarkozy prime minister — perhaps when all of France is obsessed with the chances of their national team in the World Cup. That change would make Mr. Sarkozy a de facto incumbent, akin to Al Gore following Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush following Ronald Reagan.

As the poll results suggest, Mr. Sarkozy doesn’t quite have an easy road. But he’s demonstrated a willingness to confront threats that have struck fear in the hearts of his countrymen. And one has to wonder if the French electorate would turn to a socialist to root out a terrorist threat, at Charles de Gaulle airport and elsewhere.

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