|Controversial French Journalist Eric Zemmour in hot water over racist remarks: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters|
(Story reported by Nick Vinocur for Reuters)
(Reuters) - An on-air racial quip that landed one of France's best-known political commentators in court has exposed raw differences about what can and cannot be said in public on ethnicity and its role in social problems.
The issue could undermine President Nicolas Sarkozy in a battle for re-election in 2012 against a far-right that has scored early points in the polls by exploiting mistrust of Islam by criticizing Muslim street prayers and halal-only restaurants.
Sarkozy has largely failed to lift the taboos on addressing the root causes of alienation and joblessness among France's immigrant youth as he promised to do when elected in 2007, leaving him open to accusations of inaction from all sides.
"He could be taken to task on results, which after all is the culture he promoted," said Francois Miquet-Marty, an analyst at the Viavoice polling agency. "In 2005, there were riots in the suburbs, and the situation has not changed much today. You could say that expectations have not been met."
At the center of the latest polemic is Eric Zemmour, a polarizing figure who has made a career of testing the limits of political correctness but had, until December, avoided prosecution for what he wrote and said on air.
That changed when Zemmour, a Frenchman of Algerian Jewish origin, said on a talk show panel that if black and Arab people were stopped by the police more often than other ethnic groups, it was because they were more likely to be "dealers".
"Eric Zemmour violated a French taboo. There are some questions, including that one, which one is simply not allowed to ask in France," said Frederic Micheau, a researcher at the IFOP polling institute.
The taboo is one of the founding principles of modern France, a secular country where equality before the law is official dogma and where it is forbidden to classify citizens according to race, gender or religion.
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