How the shootings in Toulouse will affect this weekend’s presidential election in France is both the first and the last question on everyone’s mind. It is the last question, or at least it ought to be, because a nation in shock should be permitted not to think about the crass matter of politics, the self-importance and mudslinging of which are particularly calamitous to respect for the victims and the sufferings of their families. But the timing of the incident was brutal, as the French have an immense decision to make only one month after the fact, and therefore the election is also, naturally, the first question.
Each candidate was required to respond; those who were quick to react were immediately chastised, by those who were slower to the bit, for using tragedy for political purposes. This brings the sum total of politicians who will stand to benefit from the incident, whether by responding to it or affecting to defer their response, to every one of them.
But the truth is that Nicolas Sarkozy thrives in situations like this one. His introduction to the nation occurred in 1993, when, as mayor of the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly, he rescued a preschool full of children from a hostage situation. A man with explosives strapped to his body entered the school making lunatic demands. French police surrounded the building, but Sarkozy went in alone to negotiate with the man. He managed to talk him into letting some of the children out, and live cameras beamed footage across the country of Sarkozy emerging from the school with children in his arms. After a standoff that lasted nearly two days, the cops went in and shot the attacker dead. “That was the moment he was introduced to the French people,” the novelist Philippe Labro told Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker interview in 2007. “Two things were apparent. Courage? Yes. But also an almost crazy appetite for living on the edge that is completely outside the normal experience of French politicians. He likes risks, enjoys risks, revels in risks.”
The accuracy of this diagnosis has been more than proven in the intervening years. As the tough-talking interior minister, Sarkozy faced the suburban riots that engulfed the country in 2005 head on, charging into the housing projects in the poor banlieues and promising, to much outcry, to clean out the “riffraff.” Since assuming the presidency in 2007, he has maneuvered himself into the international driver’s seat in one crisis after another, from the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 to the air strikes in Libya in 2011. The euro crisis has been an exemplary case, in which Sarkozy, unable to take control of the problem, attached himself at the waist to Angela Merkel. The French press has long ascribed to him a “Zorro complex.” The author and academic Claude Millet wrote in the French magazine Le Point that “crisis is the Sarkozian mode of existence.”
Indeed, the images of Sarkozy suspending his campaign in order to crisscross the country to visit the people affected by the shootings, then return to Paris to speak to the nation from the Elysée Palace, inspire confidence and some measure of comfort. And the numbers are there to prove it —Sarkozy’s approval ratings go up when, and only when, he is exercising his skills in crisis management. But this is not to suggest a purely cynical explication of the present situation—Sarkozy’s elegy to the victims was eloquent and moving. And, in an important gesture, he stated firmly that, “Our Muslim compatriots have nothing to do with the insane motivations of a terrorist. We must not allow any confusion.”
And yet, when Sarkozy makes comments such as, “We are strong when we are united around our values,” the phrase can evoke something quite different. In recent years, “values” has become the code word in France for insidious discussions about whether Islam is or is not taking over the country. “Values” was part of the justification for the ban on the full-facial veil passed by the French Parliament in 2011 and for the public “forums” on French identity that the government initiated in 2009 and 2010. “Values,” can refer to many things, but the debate surrounding them is more frequently about their importance, and not their exact definition.
And while “values” might well mean, in light of the March shootings, the place in French society for tolerance and religious freedom, it would be difficult not to read into the phrase a signal to a certain subset of voters—namely those who might be most enticed by Marine Le Pen, the 43-year-old new leader of the far-right Front National party. When the first reports about the victims in Toulouse began to circulate—three paratroopers of North African descent, three Jewish children and a 30-year-old Jewish father—the immediate reaction was that this was targeted violence against France’s “others,” primed by the country’s increasingly vitriolic debate. When the French police narrowed in on the 23-year-old Mohammed Merah as the perpetrator of the crimes, and it became clear that he was, or at least claimed to be, a “home-grown” jihadist, those sentiments made a 180-degree turn. Here, acted out in all its monstrosity, was the fear at the heart of the debates about immigration and French identity—that of a young man born in France who does not seem to adhere to what it is to be French, who is willingly swayed by a foreign political ideology to turn to violence against his compatriots. This is the insinuated central argument of Le Pen’s campaign against immigration. Certainly there is an economic component to it at this time of crisis, that illegal immigrants are taking jobs and sinking the social security system. But Le Pen also suggests an element of danger in a way that, when taken to its extreme, arrives at the figure of Mohammed Merah.
And so Le Pen is being attacked for using the incident for electoral gain, though such an accusation seems so self-evident as to be unnecessary. She has been admonished for shameless fear-mongering, but when she asked, in a public address, “How many Mohamed Merahs are there in the boats and the airplanes that arrive every day in France full of immigrants?” she clearly intended to remind voters that she is the only candidate who has been willing to speak about these fears all along. While her approach to the topic of immigration is less blatantly xenophobic than that of her father and the former party head, Jean-Marie, she does not hesitate to be blunt. One issue of her official campaign publication features a front-page photo of a boat full of Arab-looking men; a poster has an image of a French residency permit with the message, “203, 000 per year—was Sarkozy elected for this?” Le Pen is not afraid to mix the issues of immigration and security or to criticize the current administration for its “laxity” about immigration and “underestimation” of its dangers. Florian Philippot, the strategic director of Le Pen’s campaign, told Le Monde in the days following the attacks that, “[Le Pen] has a certain credibility. She has never avoided these topics. This just shows that Marine Le Pen is right to address certain subjects and the others are wrong to cover their eyes.”
Le Pen is correct in her appraisal that “security is a theme that has just signed up to the presidential campaign.” An election that, prior to Toulouse, was almost purely about economics now has a charged new dimension. This is evident in Sarkozy’s attempts, over the past few weeks, to overcome the fact that Merah had been flagged by French intelligence after trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan and was on the US no-fly list by taking a new preemptive approach to the issue of security. Early April brought news of the roundup of nineteen so-called “Islamic activists,” along with assault rifles, and the commencing of at least five deportations, likely to be followed by more. Sarkozy has also proposed a slew of new anti-terrorism laws, including one that would criminalize looking at extremist Islamic websites. These measures will be difficult to get past the French Constitution, but, in a political environment that has allowed for the rise of the Front National, Sarkozy clearly considers them crucial to his campaign.
The French presidential election is divided into two rounds, with the first round, this year on April 22, open to all eligible candidates (this year there are ten of them), and the second round, two weeks later, a run-off between the two top scorers. Traditionally the finalists have been the candidates from the two mainstream parties, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), Sarkozy’s party, and the Parti Socialiste, whose candidate this year is François Hollande. Hollande has held leadership roles in his party for more than a decade but has never been thought of as a persuasive front man, and this perception followed him into his campaign. He lost his party’s nomination for the presidency in 2007 to his former partner and the mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, during which time he acquired the nickname “Mr. Royal.” His candidacy for this year’s election came about only in the wake of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s withdrawal from the race following the scandal involving a maid in a hotel room in New York. Hollande, who unlike most presidents of the Fifth Republic, has never held a cabinet position, has offered a traditional Socialist agenda of raising taxes and the minimum wage, hiring more teachers to boost the education system, and opposition to the austerity programs sweeping through Europe at present, but his demeanor has failed to inspire much enthusiasm. Still, it is widely acknowledged that many French, particularly elites, harbor a deep rancor toward Sarkozy, and a significant proportion of voters have admitted to pollsters that their vote for Hollande is a vote against Sarkozy. Despite Sarkozy’s brief surge in the polls the week after the Toulouse shootings, Hollande has been consistently projected to win a runoff between the two, and supposedly international leaders have begun to discuss what might change if the current French president becomes the latest European head of state to fall.
There are the wild cards, however, of the fringe candidates. The memory of the 2002 election, when Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, then head of the Front National, unexpectedly advanced into the second round of voting, is still quite fresh. Le Pen père’s victory was more than anything a fluke—a plethora of candidates on the left split up voters who normally voted Socialist, putting PS candidate Lionel Jospin, with 16.18 percent in the first round, below Le Pen’s 16.86 percent. But these results also had not been predicted by the polls, which in the weeks leading up to the election did not even indicate that such an upset was possible.
Marine Le Pen is far more popular than her father. As early as January, a shocking 30 percent of French voters admitted to agreeing with her ideas, making her something akin to a mainstream candidate. These ideas, in addition to her well-articulated views on immigration, include both somewhat ludicrous protectionist measures, such as pulling out of the euro, closing French borders to trade, and “reindustrializing” the country, and more left-leaning measures, such as increasing the minimum wage and decreasing the retirement age to 60, from its Sarkozy-initiated and widely-detested recent increase to 62. This puts some aspects of her platform oddly close to that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the former Socialist who has emerged as a surprisingly popular far-left candidate. Mélenchon, who has attempted to pick up the pieces of the old French left and assemble them under his Front de Gauche, likes to frame his ideas in ways that border on demagoguery but have aroused passions where Hollande has failed. Mélenchon also wants to pull out of European trade agreements and raise the minimum wage, in addition to “taxing the wealthy at 100 percent” on all income above $470, 000 a year. Polls in recent weeks have shown him capturing 14 percent of the electorate. Neither Le Pen nor Mélenchon stands a real chance of winning the final round, but their ability to affect the numbers, and positions, of the two center candidates in the first round is substantial.
As French authorities have continued to investigate into Merah’s background, his claims of connections to Al-Qaeda have become more and more questionable. Where to draw the line between a young man radicalized by fundamentalist ideologies, and someone whose personal life, marked with failure and disenfranchisement in a society that is often hostile to its young minorities, brought him to the snapping point, has become increasingly difficult to discern. But those details probably won’t matter so much—latent anxieties have already been released into the civic debate, and will be felt for some time to come.