Toulouse Killings Take Center Stage In France’s Presidential Campaign

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Eric Cabanis / Reuters

Nicolas Sarkozy, France's President and UMP party candidate for 2012 French presidential election, delivers a speech in front of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, southwestern France, March 19, 2012.

In solidarity with the victims of the Jewish school shooting in Toulouse, the candidates in France’s presidential election had halted their campaigns. But that demonstration of national unity was all but forgotten by Thursday night, just hours after the smoke had cleared from the police raid that left self-proclaimed jihadist killer Mohammed Merah dead. Now, the candidates are fighting one another to position themselves around the drama for electoral advantage.

The tactic is a potentially risky. Voters may react adversely to any perceived exploitation of a national tragedy. But with only a month to go before polling begins April 22, it’s evident few French presidential candidates feel they can afford to refrain from addressing Merah’s terror campaign—and what it means for France. That thinking resounded loudest—and most logically—from incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s return to the stump Thursday evening found him hailing the actions of security officials and police forces under his watch for stopping “an assassin who wanted to, according to his own words, bring France to its knees by creating hate and terror”.

Earlier on Thursday, Sarkozy basically put his political opponents to the challenge of quickly passing new laws he proposed to punish “any person who regularly consults Internet sites that praise terrorism and call for hatred and violence.” He similarly called for criminalizing travel abroad for radical ideological instruction or armed training from extremists—as Merah did in 2010 and 2011 during trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In doing so, Sarkozy clearly sought to blur the lines between his status as commander of the forces that ended a terror drama, and his position as a candidate struggling to convince voters he deserves another five-year mandate.

“During the day I must be the President of the Republic facing the pain of victims, (and) the President of the Republic facing grave decisions,” Sarkozy told a campaign audience in Strasbourg Thursday. “And at the same time, I am a candidate.”

That fact was not lost on Sarkozy’s rivals. In response, some critics contended the president himself had in some ways been responsible for fanning the fires of ethnic and religious division and social tension. In addition to earlier presidential initiatives widely regarded as pandering to extreme-right voters—including the national debate on French identity, deportation of European Roma, and law banning the full veil burqa in public—Sarkozy has taken hard-line positions against immigration, foreigners and issues concerning Islam since entering the race.

That bow to supporters of the far right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen has coincided with an improvement in Sarkozy’s projected first-round polling numbers. But it’s also increased objections that he’s selling his political soul to the extreme-right if that’s what it takes to be re-elected. Sarkozy’s stance was immediately criticized by his chief opponent. “In this election period, the terrorist wanted to divide us, inject the madness of anti-Semitic racism, and even terrify the nation,” said Socialist candidate François Hollande Thursday evening, who went on to contrast his campaigning efforts to those of Sarkozy. “All my actions, all my declarations have been guided by a single concern: uniting the country.”

Centrist candidate François Bayrou echoed similar sentiments on BFM TV Thursday. Like all contestants in the race, Bayrou unconditionally condemned Merah and called his ideology and action dangers to be battled at all cost. Yet he, too, placed the Toulouse horror within a wider framework of Sarkozy policies he suggested were cleaving, stigmatizing, and demeaning. Those, he said, were part of  “a diversionary campaign using secondary topics” in order to ignore the economic, employment, and social ills that French voters are most worried about—and which Sarkozy has struggled to remedy. “The more insulting the words are,” Bayrou said, “the weaker the minds of those who use them”.

Not surprisingly, Le Pen viewed things from the opposite perspective. Earlier attempts by Sarkozy to lure her voters away had instead boosted her own popularity and support. And so, Le Pen is now pointing to Toulouse as proof that Sarkozy is the permissive, weak impostor surrendering to foreign forces—a portrait she has consistently painted of the president. “I’ve warned for 10 years that entire neighborhoods are in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, and I say it again today: the danger is underestimated,” Le Pen told France Info radio Thursday—casting herself as the only real answer to what she calls the growing threat of immigration and Islam. “The reality French people are seeing is that social and civil peace has been bought in a number of districts, and that price is the development of (fundamentalist) networks.”

Sarkozy may try to benefit from being strong on national security but it is a double-edged sword. Critics of the President are likely to point out that French intelligence services knew of Merah’s travels and training by extremists, and were equally aware of his radical Islamist convictions. So how was it, many people now ask, that security forces came to view him as posing no threat to public safety—and allowed him the freedom to plan and execute three attacks before he could be stopped? French government authorities have sought to refute suggestions of intelligence failure— though not always very convincingly. One factor: Sarkozy, even before his ascent to the presidency, has always had close ties to the intelligence apparatus. On Thursday night, the President appeared to banish suspicions that the country’s intelligence services had failed as virtually unpatriotic. “No, France isn’t guilty…and no, the Republic did not err,” Sarkozy insisted. “These crimes are inexplicable, and inexcusable. If French voters entrust me with their confidence, the Republic will leave no terrorist in peace, (and) the Republic will pursue all those who threaten the security of our fellow citizens.”