French Anti-Terror Raids: A Sarkozy Election Gambit?

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Jean-Sebastien / AFP / Getty Images

The French National Police Intervention Group (GIPN) arrest Forsane Alizza Islamic radical group's leader Mohamed Achamlane after searching his house in Bouguenais, western France, on March 30, 2012.

Urgent anti-terror operation, or election season security stunt? That’s the question some people in France were already asking themselves Friday in the wake of a series of dawn police raids resulting the arrest of 19 suspected Islamist extremists. The discovery of a number of fire arms—including at least one Kalashnikov, according to officials—offers rather clear evidence at least some of the 19 people apprehended were involved in illegal and potentially dangerous activity. Authorities noted Friday’s operation was not uniquely related to the murder spree by self-declared al Qaeda member Mohammed Merah and involved suspects long under watch — which raised inevitable questions about whether the timing of the move was in part intended to lift President Nicolas Sarkozy’s uphill chances for re-election.

“The fact these suspects were known radicals and possessed arms makes it clear the raids were justified, but it’s also clear their timing is very advantageous to Sarkozy’s presidential campaigning,” says a French counter-terrorism official. “There are always questions about when the right time to stop surveillance of extremists and make arrests is, so there will inevitably be questions about whether timing of today’s action was were based on security or electoral considerations. Both exist, and both were involved.”

The simultaneous raids were staged in a number of French regions, including areas around Paris, Nantes, Nice, Lyon, and Toulouse—the city where Merah was fatally shot March 22 during a police siege that halted a murder spree which had left seven dead, including three small Jewish children. Though Merah told authorities during his 32-hour standoff that he alone planned and staged what he described as a campaign of jihadist revenge against enemies, officials continue investigations to see whether he had any help or support. As part of that effort, Merah’s older brother, Abdelkader, was officially placed under investigation for complicity in murder on March 25—a move that, under French law, is similar to someone being named a suspect in a case. That step was taken on indications the elder Merah may have been aware of certain aspects of his brother’s activities.

Earlier in the week a USB key containing video footage Merah had taken of his three attacks was sent to the Paris bureau of al-Jazeera with a postmark suggesting it was mailed after his final face-off with police had already begun. Later in the week, a car containing replacement parts for the scooter Merah used in his strikes was discovered in a village outside Toulouse, though its owner has yet to be found. But despite indications Merah may not have been the lone wolf he claimed to be, no solid proof that he had accomplices has yet to arise.

That may not change following Friday’s raids. Though the discovery of so many illegal guns in the hands of radicals that intelligence services had under watch clearly justifies Friday’s operation, Sarkozy himself told radio station Europe 1 Friday morning it “is not simply linked to Toulouse.” Instead, Sarkozy indicated the operation was also part of an offensive against “a form of radical Islam and in full accord with the law.” The aim, he said, was to counter a public security threat that—as Merah’s murderous acts proved—must not be taken lightly or ignored. “What took place this morning will continue,” Sarkozy vowed.

In the wake of the Toulouse drama, few people in France take issue with Sarkozy’s preventive logic. It is likely, however, that some critics will openly question whether Friday’s operation wasn’t also designed as a high profile means of boosting Sarkozy’s leadership credentials among French voters still shaken by Merah’s acts. Indeed, in noting Friday’s police action was in part “tied” to the inquiry into Merah’s campaign, Sarkozy took efforts to underline the drama France had undergone, and position himself as the leader capable of protecting the nation against future violence.

“The trauma of…Toulouse to our country has been deep, and a bit like—even if I don’t want to compare horrors—the trauma in the United States and New York that followed the affair of September 11, 2001,” Sarkozy said on Europe 1, before speaking of Friday’s action. “I can tell you a certain number of guns, including Kalashnikovs, were seized…We can’t remain idle without drawing conclusions. Other (police) operations will follow.”

With polls showing Sarkozy’s improving projected election scores still insufficient to beat Socialist rival François Hollande in an anticipated May 6 run-off, Sarkozy has been seeking to woo extreme-right voters to his cause by hardening his line on fighting crime and terrorism, stressing the threat posed by Islamic extremism, and vowing to slash immigration. His manner of doing that in the wake of the Toulouse drama led critics to accuse Sarkozy of seeking to exploit Merah’s outrage—and the public fears it has stoked—to his own electoral gain by depicting himself as the strong leader of a nation facing threats from enemies within. Even extreme-right National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, has savaged Sarkozy for what she claims is a cynical use of a national tragedy. In response, Sarkozy has only hardened his position. His rising poll numbers suggest that strategy—not his handling of the Toulouse attacks and security operations since—may be proving as successful in electoral terms as it has been controversial politically.

“The likelihood that today’s operation will improve Sarkozy’s leadership profile and election outlook doesn’t necessarily mean that its timing wasn’t also right for security reasons,” the counter-terrorism official says. “When you have extremists under watch, there’s always debate over how long you wait before moving in, and how long you can afford to keep collecting information before the threat of violent action means you have to make preventive arrests. It’s a judgment call, and there are not hard and fast rules. Was today’s action urgent? Was it mostly politically timed? The answer to that will depend on the information you have, and who you ask about it.”