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Politics of French tragedy cannot be ignored

The handling of the murderous campaign of Mohamed Merah that came to end when he was shot dead on Thursday had a political dimension.
Nicolas Sarkozy during a ceremony to pay homage to the three soldiers killed by Mohamed Merah.
Nicolas Sarkozy during a ceremony to pay homage to the three soldiers killed by Mohamed Merah.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE // The voice quivers with emotion. The words are dignified, statesmanlike and strong. Come the hour of crisis, come the man.

Only a harsh observer, it may be thought, would detect cynical opportunism in the demeanour of Nicolas Sarkozy during the extraordinary events in France this week.

But the past five years have left many in France with precisely such harsh feelings about their president.

And perhaps only the naive would see no political dimension in the handling of the murderous campaign of Mohamed Merah that came to end when he was shot dead on Thursday to end a 32-hour siege of his flat.

In the first opinion poll after the killings of three children and the father of two of them at a Jewish school on Monday, Mr Sarkozy was shown to have overtaken François Hollande in voting intentions for the first round of France's presidential elections on April 22. Up until then, the socialist candidate had been clear favourite.

If the poll is accurate, and there is some dispute because of the methodology used, it may herald significant movement in public opinion.

The killings that Merah boasted of carrying out, with more targets already chosen, sent a collective shiver down the nation's spine. The deliberate choice of small children among his seven victims seemed especially repellent.

But when tragedy occurs, common feelings of outrage, shock and grief tend to fracture along partisan lines once explanations are sought and conclusions drawn.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (FN) and scourge of what she calls the "Islamification" of France, was quick to seize on security issues, accusing Mr Sarkozy of presiding over glaring lapses in law enforcement in which extremism has been dangerously underestimated.

In a bad-tempered presidential campaign, it is inevitable that such terrible events, and the differing responses of candidate to them, have a potential effect on voters' thinking.

And the motives proclaimed by Merah - Muslim grievances with France in particular, the West in general - widen public discussion to cover questions of community relations, racism and immigration.

Yet it is not inconceivable that many who feel Mr Sarkozy has generally been a poor or disappointing president may now be reconsidering. Among the candidates, is he at least the one who stands out as a character who looks and behaves like a head of state.

Mr Hollande may feel this unfair, since he was the first to suspend campaigning in the aftermath of the Toulouse school shooting and - despite subsequent carping from the Sarkozy camp - has cut an equally decent figure throughout. He will know, however, that the man he seemed on course to defeat with ease has emerged from an unspeakably bleak episode with credit that could win votes.

There are qualifications to be made. Some suspect Ms Le Pen stands at least as much chance as Mr Sarkozy of increasing her support, especially if voters share her belief that he has failed to live up to his tough-on-crime mantra.

And there are questions about the role of French intelligence in tracking Merah's transition from petty criminality to dangerous radicalism. Any credible argument that one or more of the three attacks might have been avoided would be highly damaging to Mr Sarkozy.

As for the president's image among French Muslims, estimated as between five and seven million, the possible implications are more difficult to calculate.

Many deplore the criminalisation of wearing the face-covering niqab, bitterly oppose French involvement in Afghanistan and feel alienated by routine exposure to discrimination and prejudice. The president's recent assertion that there were "too many foreigners" in France, and his promise to halve the number of immigrant entries, was seen with good reason as aimed predominantly at Muslims, from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.

Dismay, even disgust, at government policy leads to extremist action, or even tacit support for violence, in very few cases. But it makes voting for Mr Sarkozy an even less attractive proposition than it was already.

The president's allies feel he has shown France he alone carries the authority and resolve to deal with - his phrase - a "national tragedy".

"It is incontestably a turning point," Jean-François Copé, general secretary of Mr Sarkozy's UMP party told Le Monde newspaper. "A tragedy of this magnitude shows what we stand for and have been arguing for a long time: a rejection of amalgams [confusion of Islam and radical violence] and firmness in the war against extremists."

Against this party line is the concern felt by a number of observers that Ms Le Pen has also won favour. "There is absolutely no doubt that [her] share of the vote will increase because of this outrage," wrote the Franco-Algerian journalist and academic Nabila Ramdani in UK's The Guardian.

If what Ramdani calls Mr Sarkozy's "huge security failures" loses him votes to the far right, any success in regaining the confidence of more moderate, but disillusioned supporters of his own centre-right approach could count for nothing.

And his chief problem remains, in any case, the sting in the tail of this week's otherwise encouraging opinion poll that has also been a feature of every poll before it: the prognosis for second-round voting. Mr Sarkozy's general unpopularity remains deep-rooted enough to translate, on current voting intentions, into a comfortable victory for Mr Hollande in the May 6 decider.



Updated: March 24, 2012 04:00 AM