French shootings and the presidential elections

French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace (21 March 2012) Mr Sarkozy said terrorism would not be able to "fracture our national community"

After the killings at the school in Toulouse, French candidates suspended their election campaigns. That did not, of course, suspend politics.

All the campaigns have been busy making their calculations. What impact will the shootings have on the first round of voting in the presidential elections on 22 April?

In the short term it is likely that President Nicolas Sarkozy will benefit. Very quickly he took charge. He rushed to the scene. He suspended his campaign. He spoke as the president of the republic.

He called for a minute's silence. He brought together Jewish and Muslim leaders. His interior minister has been on the ground at the siege in Toulouse directing operations and briefing the media. In a crisis, incumbent leaders often have the advantage.

'Untested' Hollande

The shootings also play into a narrative that the Sarkozy campaign have been stressing; that the president is a man of experience, of crisis management while his main opponent, Francois Hollande, is untested.

The background and motive of the suspect, however, has changed calculations. There was a presumption in most French papers that this was a racist attack carried out by a gunman from the far right.

Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in Toulouse (19 March 2012) Francois Hollande visited the Jewish school where three children and a teacher were murdered

It led the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou to criticise the tone of the campaign and what he called the "growing climate of intolerance".

This was seen as a reference to President Sarkozy's remarks about the failure of integration and his demand that there be no special treatment for minorities. He had made an issue over slaughtered halal meat, calling for all halal or kosher meat to be labelled.

His critics accused him of pandering to the far right in a bid to take votes away from Marine Le Pen. The far left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, urged people to "choose their words and their quotations more carefully". The Socialist candidate Francois Hollande also spoke about the risk of "words that influence".

But today the script changed. It emerged that the suspect was 23-year-old Mohammed Merah, a French national of North African origin.

Start Quote

National Front leader Marine Le Pen (17 Mar 2012)

We have minimised the rise of radical Islam in this country... we did not want to look it in the face”

End Quote Marine Le Pen French National Front leader

He has apparently claimed a connection with al-Qaeda and has visited Pakistan and Afghanistan. He told negotiators that the killing of the Jewish children and the attacks on French soldiers of North Africa origin was "revenge on behalf of Palestinian children".

The revelations have altered the political fall-out. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who might have been damaged if this had been an extreme right attack, came out and said "we have minimised the rise of radical Islam in this country... we did not want to look it in the face".

She said that France should wage war against "these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children".

Almost certainly, France will again debate immigration and the failures of integration.

This is territory that usually benefits candidates from the right and centre-right but after the killings the tone of the campaign is likely to soften.

The incident has enabled Nicolas Sarkozy to play the role he likes best, a man of action and decision in a crisis. Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate, will want to try and get attention back to taxes and the economy.

So will the tragic events in Toulouse change the course of the election? Probably not.

The first round of voting is over a month away and France's national focus on these attacks will fade. The election will turn on leadership, the economy and whether voters want another five years of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Gavin Hewitt, Europe editor Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The Toulouse shootings will be forgotten by the first round and Sarkozy's record of promising much and delivering little will be the focus again. His tendency to run with the foxes and hunt with the hounds will become obvious as the campaign nears its climax. His lack of an economic strategy and me too to Merkel will lose votes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "The first round of voting is over a month away and France's national focus on these attacks will fade." No doubt helped by media outlets like the BBC trying to bury yet another Islamic attack. Yesterday, the BBC was all about the threat of right-wing extremists, now, well, let's just change the subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The biggest impact will be a war against Iran.

    The Israeli politicians are very good at using tragic events for their own agenda.

    Politicians in general use these terrible events and the fear in the public that they create, to drive forward their controlling policies.

    Every politician wants to be a "War President". It's their dream. Unfortunately for the rest of us that means more war

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I am saddedned that rideforever's comment that "Israeli politicians are very good at using tragic events for their own agenda" passed the moderator. This was an anti-semitic attack. These were french children. they were targeted because they were Jewish, not because they were Israeli. They were murdered, one child crawling on its hands, grabbed by the hair so it could be shot in the head.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The distaste for Sarkozy is undiminished. These murders are horrible, and revulsion is universal. Security services have identified a suspect rapidly. More fundamental issues that affect the daily lives of the French citizens regarding the economy, employment, taxation will concentrate the minds, as they have been concentrated. Sarkozy has failed in his office to improve the economic climate.


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