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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 13:57 GMT
The hyper-president's biggest problem
By Hugh Schofield

Nicolas Sarkozy, the man they call the hyper-president, moved back into hyper-drive after the new outbreak of riots in the Paris suburbs.

Police in Villiers-le-Bel
Police have faced angry, armed protesters in Paris suburbs

First thing Wednesday morning, barely off the plane from a state visit to China, he was at the sick-bed of the police chief badly beaten by a mob on Sunday night.

Driven home to the presidential palace, he had talks with the mayor of the troubled suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, followed by Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

Then he met the parents of the two teenagers killed in the accident that sparked the troubles. Then - at about 0900 - he had breakfast.

Relentless energy and a bottomless belief in his own capacity to solve things are the French president's overriding character-traits, but in this latest crisis there has been an added urgency to his response.

Striking absence

The spectre of the riots spreading from banlieue to banlieue in a ghastly repeat of November 2005 looms ominously over the country.

Back then, Mr Sarkozy was interior minister and won an unwelcome reputation in the poor high-immigration suburbs for his tough-talking on crime.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Mr Sarkozy has promised funds and attention to the banlieues

Since his election he has fought hard to pose as a unifier - promising to bring jobs and security back to troubled housing estates and appointing several ministers of immigrant background.

But the president knows well how little has really improved in the last two years - and how insignificant could be the spark that plunges France back into another orgy of violence.

It is significant that the riots in Villiers-le-Bel should have broken out just as the country emerged from another, very different, crisis.

For weeks France had been fixated by an old-fashioned capital-versus-labour social dispute over pensions that culminated in a crippling nine-day railway strike ending last Friday.

As the country grappled with the rights and wrongs of retirement at 50, and negotiators haggled over the billions required to appease the unions, what was striking was the absence of any mention of a far more glaring national ill.

Heightened tension

Once again the banlieues had been shunted off to the sidelines of social consciousness, just as physically the poor estates are parked on the invisible outskirts of France's towns and cities.

Rioter in 2005 (file pic)
The riots in 2005 affected several French cities

It was like doctors arguing over how much to spend on inessential surgery for a patient suffering from heart disease. Sunday's tremor was an urgent recall to reality.

Because of course, the fault-line exposed by the 2005 disturbances is as dangerous now as it was then.

In the out-of-town high-rise neighbourhoods there remains a large population of young men who thanks to unemployment, poor education, destabilised family structures and racial discrimination have very little stake in French society.

Some of these are happy to resort to violence against symbols of the state, and many more lend tacit support.

Police in the latest riots say they were horrified by the degree of hatred directed against them. One member of the riot squad said that for the first time in his career, he had felt afraid for his life.

This time - unlike in 2005 - guns were fired from deep in the crowd - hunting rifles normally used for killing deer or boar.

With this level of tension, it would take one small over-reaction from a police-officer to leave a rioter dead or injured. And then what?

Pressing concern

If - as seems possible - the worst of the rioting is now over, the president will be able to focus attention away from law-and-order and onto rehabilitation and social reform.

In January, he and Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, herself an Algerian-born social activist from the banlieue, are to unveil a new "Marshall plan" for the suburbs, focusing on education, jobs and transport.

Over the years billions of euros have been spent on the banlieues - to little obvious result - so it is not surprising that a certain degree of scepticism awaits this latest initiative.

But doing nothing is not an option. Forget pensions: the problems of the banlieues remain France's most pressing social concern.

For a hyperactive president, they are the challenge he cannot shirk.

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