- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

Far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen insists that the riots rocking French cities have vindicated his anti-immigration views, but opinion polls give a slight boost to Premier Dominique de Villepin for his handling of the crisis.

After the government ordered a 12-day state of emergency, National Police Chief Michel Gaudin told reporters in Paris yesterday there was a “very sharp drop” in violent incidents.

Car burnings — the primary vandalism since the nightly protests began — have been falling, and violent clashes between police and immigrant gangs, mostly from North and West Africa, also declined.

But officials said 203 more persons were detained overnight, and Lyon, the country’s second-largest city, was blacked out when two power stations were attacked.

Political analysts are watching intently to see how two weeks of urban unrest in neighborhoods of immigrants and their children will affect the intense jockeying over who will succeed President Jacques Chirac, who is expected to step down when his term ends in 2007.

The patrician Mr. de Villepin has taken a much softer line on the rioters than has his main rival for the president’s post, outspoken Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. The two are in a struggle for control of the center-right coalition built by Mr. Chirac.

Two weeks of nightly street riots and vandalism have sparked soul-searching in France over the country’s vaunted social welfare model and, Mr. Le Pen said, have vindicated his anti-immigrant message.

“The facts support me. The situation is even taking a turn toward perhaps the beginnings of a civil war,” Mr. Le Pen said in a statement posted on the Web site of his National Front party.

He told the Associated Press that the party’s e-mail system had crashed because so many messages of support had poured in.

He called Mr. Chirac’s delayed, low-key response to the riots “pitiable,” adding: “Nothing I have seen surprises me. I think that things may even get worse.”

The newspaper Liberacion noted that the recent government security crackdown — declaring a state of emergency, imposing curfews and deporting foreigners arrested — takes many of the steps long urged by Mr. Le Pen and other hard-line politicians.

The first polls published since the rioting broke out near Paris Oct. 27 show strong support for the emergency law-and-order measures, but that has not translated into support for Mr. Sarkozy.

French pollster IFOP this week found that three-quarters of those surveyed support the emergency measures to quell the violence, but also found that Mr. Sarkozy’s popularity has dipped, when compared with Mr. de Villepin’s.

For the first time, the premier beat Mr. Sarkozy in a head-to-head matchup,52 percent to 44 percent. Just 42 percent of the French approve of Mr. Chirac’s performance — and 56 percent disapprove.

Opposition Socialist Party leaders have denounced Mr. Sarkozy’s “cowboy attitude” for characterizing the rioters as “scum,” but the center-left has been hampered by the lack of a clear leader.

Beyond the polls, the riots have sparked a debate in France about the future of the country’s social system, one that guarantees citizens generous benefits and civil protections but has been unable to deal with the alienation and isolation felt by the young, unemployed, primarily Muslim rioters.

Mr. Chirac, almost invisible since the rioting began, told reporters yesterday that the violence had brought a “time for reflection” for France.

“We need to respond in a strong and quick way to the unquestionable problems which many inhabitants of the deprived neighborhoods are facing,” he said.

Rioters complain of a lack of economic opportunity, harassment by the police and a feeling that they remain second-class citizens.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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