NS Profile - Nicolas Sarkozy

The son of a Hungarian immigrant, the interior minister has taken France by storm. Can he now push C

France has been mugged. It has yielded, what is more, with a shudder of satisfaction. The visibly injured part of the nation is limited to members of the French government. The entire cabinet, that is, except for Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister of the interior. For "Sarko" is the mugger. By all appearances, he holds France in the palm of his hand in 2004.

Considering how hard the conquering George Bush has found it to manoeuvre France into anything resembling docility, Sarko's feat is astonishing. There seems little that he can't put right. Give him crime and he'll reduce it dramatically. Give him road safety and he'll curb the carnage. Give him prostitution and he'll push it off the street. Give him Jean-Marie Le Pen and he'll thrash the monster. Give him immigration and he'll make most people feel a little better. Give him insecurity and he'll make France secure. Sarko is very short, historically no bar to greatness in France, and very driven. For the past year, he appears to many ordinary Frenchmen to have been running the country on his own, and the public has responded largely with relief and admiration.

Sarko is near shameless about his political ambitions. With its shades of Batman and maybe Napoleon (hear "Boney"), the abbreviation became national jargon during 2003. For all his energy and sleek, dark hair, he is not, at nearly 49, the youngest of young men in a hurry. But he comes across as new, indeed modern, in the company of rivals who hover inconspicuous, waiting decades before stretching for the highest rung. Sarko is always at full, impatient stretch. His candour shocks. Make way, oldsters.

The interior minister's ambition constantly spills forth on national TV. You can't blame the networks for indulging a man who balloons viewer ratings. Whether commercials or Sarko get more airtime in France seems a close-run thing. People are curious about him. Does he dream of being president when shaving? The answer comes in assured, measured tones: "Yes, and not only when shaving." Before Christmas, he publicly owned up to seeking Jacques Chirac's job long before it falls vacant; then he called for a two-term limit on the presidency. There was no missing the tilt at the 71-year-old Chirac, who is permitted under current law to go on seeking re-election as often as he wants (you may safely count on him at least contemplating a third term in office, of five years). "When the mandate has no limit," Sarko pointedly observed, "it is only too human to want to endure."

Chirac is not an unpopular president; he stood up manfully to Bush over Iraq, gaining much world credit. But two in three French voters say they don't want him in the Elysee Palace after he completes his second term. And more than one in two voters (52 per cent) tell opinion pollsters they favour Sarkozy for president in the next election, still three years off.

With these figures in support, Sarko's gall grows. A teetotaller who keeps fit by hard cycling, he gravitates by some advanced homing device to just where a popular leader should locate himself for maximum effect. Whenever a tragic/stirring/miraculous event occurs that moves the French nation, he is on the spot before government rivals have pulled out their TGV timetables. Poor Chirac puffs to reach the scene of the latest flood disaster before Sarko is pulling his waders off and moving on somewhere else. A French interior minister has wide remit. Responsibility for the police and security allows him to touch most bases in French society. Even under an unthrusting interior minister, this can upset cabinet colleagues. With Sarko in charge, the irritation boils over.

What distinguishes Sarkozy from the classic French high politico is what he is not: he isn't a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (Ena), which turns out princes of the state; he isn't a product of any of the other grandes ecoles that bestow an Oxbridge gloss; he didn't inherit an electoral fiefdom from the family; he isn't the son of a government grandee, or even of an MP or senator. He is the son of a Hungarian immigrant who fled communism in the late 1940s and signed up for the Foreign Legion. A kindly Legion doctor gave Pal Nagy Bocsa y Sarkozy a medical discharge as he was about to be shipped out to fight France's losing colonial war in Vietnam. Settled in Paris, the would-be artist from the Danubian squirearchy, heavily armed with Habsburg charm, went through four marriages - the first of which, to a French surgeon's daughter, produced Sarkozy, the family name having been shortened for the benefit of the French bureaucracy. Despite a flighty father, Nicolas had a careful, middle-class upbringing without frills, his French mother in control. They moved to the top-drawer inner suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Gaullist party citadel, where he trained as a lawyer and threw himself into Gaullist youth politics. He felt himself an outsider but mobilised his inherited charm to win election as a Neuilly town councillor at 22, then as mayor at the raw age of 28. "I've screwed them all," he is recorded as saying on election night. He was talking not about left-wing opponents but about the bigger-name Gaullists whom he'd bundled aside.

For Sarkozy it has always been me against them, fellow conservatives included. He has taken risks. Chirac, king of France's mainstream conservative forces for more than two decades, ostracised him after he switched allegiance within the Gaullist ranks on a personal hunch in the 1995 presidential election, and supported the sniffy Edouard Balladur. For three years, Chirac refused to speak to Sarko, previously one of his favourites.

He has forced his way back since 2002 by making him-self indispensable. He gets things done. As interior minister - the most powerful rank in cabinet after prime minister, now filled by the bemused Jean-Pierre Raffarin - he is often criticised for pursuing a "results culture". The charge is that his efforts are superficial. No sooner is crime-fighting designated the priority than the Sarkozy fax bank is spilling out news of an impressive X per cent drop in crime in three months; no sooner are road deaths the target than word comes of a staggering Y per cent fall compared with the same month a year previously. Wonderful. But how enduring is the change?

The public doesn't seem to worry. Sarko may not have the government on his side, but he has the people. With his calm voice, short, clear phrasing and common man's vocabulary, he sounds unerringly convincing. Soft eyes mask the toughness. He never loses his calm in television debates, a talent that has more than once helped him to torment the far right's bullying Le Pen before millions of viewers. "I buried him, he's finished," Sarko boasted following their latest set-to.

If he can produce even short-term results in the heavily mined zones he has trodden so far, who can say he is wrong to advance new solutions for French society? The Sarkozy issue for 2004 is immigration. It didn't take him long, once he stepped in as interior minister in 2002, to deal with the contentious asylum camp at Sangatte, whose inmates eyed England through the mouth of the Channel Tunnel. In a quickish deal with David Blunkett, he closed it. Yet, unlike many French conservatives, he has a genuine empathy with immigrants, attributable to his own background. French Muslims respond to him with some favour, though he seems to have dropped his initial opposition to a legal ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves in state schools and jobs; he now sees a straight ban, almost certain to be imposed this year, as better for integration.

But he has raised a storm that could prove bigger still. His new proposal to launch US-style affirmative action in the job market to help the Arab minority is a challenge to his own government. The "positive discrimination" he proposes would give Arab newcomers a guaranteed leg-up in jobs and professions now weighted against them. He will get things moving by appointing in at least one province a Muslim as a prefect, a position with full authority over law and order.

Positive discrimination, Chirac hastens to explain through gritted teeth, is a non-starter. It would run counter to best French republican tradition, which holds everyone equal under the law and thus bars discrimination, negative or positive. Sarko's nonconformism is making an impact, however, intensifying the debate on how to advance integration. Public opinion overwhelmingly supports affirmative action for entry to educational bastions such as Ena. "A certain number of our compatriots suffer more handicaps than others," Sarkozy says. "We need to take account of this suffering."

A certain number of his compatriots - a minority, it seems - also suffer from Sarko-itis. The worst afflicted beg for a "non-Sarko day", with the minister barred from TV screens, radio and the press. He clearly runs the risk of overdoing it. Type his name into Google's French news search (news.google.fr) and 1,500 articles come up just for last month. His life is a constant campaign: he made 160 trips to the provinces in 2003, roughly one every two days, to assure the fearful of his protection. This tireless activity is organised by his wife, Cecilia, who works full-time at the interior ministry from the office next to his, their rooms linked with a communicating door.

Chirac is in no position to get rid of him: Sarko's place in government is too well cemented in the public opinion. But that does not stop those whom he offends from seeking ways to help him overreach himself. With Raffarin fading, one solution might be to make him prime minister. That should sink him. The job has pulled down most of those who have tried it, Chirac being a notable exception. The trouble is, the mugger might well make a go of it.