Paris - An apparently routine check of a man trying to use Paris' public transport system without a valid ticket has given the campaign for the French presidential election something that had been conspicuously missing: a hot issue.
The ensuing arrest of the man, a 32-year-old Congolese native allegedly living illegally in France, ultimately turned into full- scale riot at the French capital's Gare du Nord railway station on Tuesday, as hundreds of youths clashed with baton-wielding riot police.
This event, in turn, has provoked a lively and often acrimonious exchange among the presidential candidates, with Socialist Segolene Royal and centrist Francois Bayrou charging former interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy with having created an atmosphere of confrontation and Sarkozy shooting back by saying that his rivals are soft on crime.
'It is really sad to see the candidates for the presidency, that is those who must embody the identity of the nation, ... make excuses for cheats, rioters and the violent,' Sarkozy said Thursday, eager to continue the public debate over an issue on which he has largely built his reputation.
For her part, Royal said on Wednesday that the train station riot was further proof that Sarkozy's tenure as France's top cop had been 'a failure from start to finish.'
'Obviously, travellers must pay for their tickets,' Royal said. 'But that a simple ticket check could degenerate into such a violent confrontation proves that something is wrong ... French society has never been so violent. Relations between the national police and the population have never been so bad.'
For Bayrou, the hours of rioting at the Gare du Nord occurred because, as interior minister, Sarkozy had 'made of the police exclusively a force of repression.'
He accused Sarkozy's UMP party of 'seeking confrontation too much,' but also charged that the Socialists were 'too lenient' in their approach to crime fighting.
The ticket check turned violent after the man trying to get a free ride was subdued by the RATP agents because, police sources said, he tried to head-butt one of them. Police arrested him shortly thereafter.
However, many witnesses said the police had over-reacted and accused them of using unnecessary violence.
The altercation drew the attention of youngsters loitering in the station, who were reportedly also drawn by a false rumour that police had beaten a 13-year-old boy.
According to police, up to 300 youths began rampaging in the station, looting a sporting goods store, destroying furnishings and equipment and hurling objects at the police, who fought back with batons and tear gas.
The violence brought back uneasy memories of the riots of October-November 2005, when the deaths of two minority youths in a Paris suburb sparked three weeks of unrest throughout France during which some 10,000 vehicles and several hundred buildings were set on fire.
Several months earlier, Sarkozy had described many youths living in France's rundown suburban ghettoes as 'scum' and had vowed to 'clean up (the neighbourhoods) with a Kaercher,' using the brand name of a high-pressure industrial cleaner for effect.
Such comments as well as his tough stance during the riots made him the most popular politician in France for a period, but it has not helped him in the campaign, where the issue of crime has not played a significant role - until now.
In a recent survey, insecurity was well down the list of issues that potential voters found important, well behind unemployment and other social worries.
But this may change now. In the run-up to the 2002 presidential election, French media highlighted a series of violent crime and turned law and order into the most important single issue in the campaign by far.
The result was the stunning breakthrough of right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who beat out Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin for second place in the election's first round - only to lose by a landslide in the second round to the current incumbent, Jacques Chirac.
A repeat of this phenomenon could help Sarkozy, whose campaign has been faltering and who has gone out of his way to court Le Pen's electorate.
However, many French voters may then ask themselves why, after being named interior minister in 2002 and serving in the post for nearly four of the past five years, scenes of violence are still dominating the news broadcasts.