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Analysis: French presidential election 2012

Sarkozy boosted by Toulouse killings drama - but will it last?

Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was back on the campaign trail on Thursday, dubbing Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah a “monster” but no doubt conscious that the monster’s trail of terror may have improved his chances of being reelected in May’s presidential poll.

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“To find even the smallest excuse for him would be an unpardonable moral failing,” Sarkozy told his audience in the Alsace capital, Strasbourg. “To blame society, to point the finger at France, politics, the institutions, is despicable.”

As Le Monde commented Friday, the news shifted to the right this week, allowing Sarkozy, who was earlier accused of flirting with the far right in order to steal votes from Front National candidate Marine Le Pen, to “recentre” himself without changing his political stance.

As the shocking news from Toulouse hit the media Monday, Sarkozy, followed by Socialist rival François Hollande and most of the other 10 candidates, suspended campaigning and paid tribute to the three Jewish children, one teacher and three soldiers whom Merah had killed.

Only Modem’s François Bayrou, hard left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Trotskyist Nathalie Arthaud declined to observe the truce, arguing that a debate on the causes of the violence were a necessary part of political life.

While the identity of the killer remained unclear, Bayrou complained that a climate of intolerance reined in the country, thanks to politicians who have “stirred up passions” – widely interpreted as a reference not only to Le Pen but also to Sarkozy and his lieutenants, notably Interior Minister Claude Guéant.

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Had one of the investigators’ hypotheses, that the killer or killers were far-right fanatics, proved correct, Bayrou’s words might have found a wider echo.

But Merah turned out to be an Islamist, born to an Algerian mother in a French city.

So, although Sarkozy took care to say that the majority of France’s Muslims were not to blame for his acts, Guéant didn’t see any need to apologise for his recent claims that “our civlisation” must be defended or that immigration is a “problem”.

Indeed, all Sarkozy had to do was look presidential, which he succeeded in doing, if an opinion poll Friday showingd 71 per cent of French people believe he handled the crisis well is to be believed.

Even Le Pen, who lashed Bayrou and Mélenchon as soon as she possibly could, seems not to have benefited from atrocities that would seem to confirm her darkest warnings of a dormant beast of foreign origin and dubious religious allegiance in the deprived banlieues around France’s major cities.

As police laid siege to Merah in his Toulouse apartment, she denounced “laxness” on security and claiming, against all the apparent evidence, that her favourite themes of law and order and Islamic fundamentalism had, until then, been “evacuated from the campaign”.

But, as in all such crises, a spirit of national unity seems to predominate in the French public mind – to Sarkozy’s benefit. Indeed, end-of-week polls on voting intentions showed Mélenchon taking over from Le Pen as the third-placed candidate.

And the same poll that gave Sarkozy a vote of confidence on the question saw 76 per cent declaring that no community should be stigmatised, an apparent rejection of Le Pen’s politics.

For his part, Hollande has kept a low profile, stressing his patriotism and his commitment to “the struggle against terrorism”, while the right has tried to press the advantage by accusing the Socialist Party of being soft and law and order.

Jean-François Copé, the head of Sarkozy’s UMP, laid into the party of “refusing to vote” for the government's burka ban, “stigmatising” its “debate” on “national identity” and "never having made security a priority in its programme”.

There is a month to go before the first round of voting, however, and the effect of this week’s dramatic events may well wear off.

Already Bayrou, who was the unnamed target of Sarkozy's remarks in Strasbourg, and the left are asking why the intelligence services did not suspect what Merah was planning, given that he had fought with the Taliban and that they had been watching him for several years.

Le Pen has even claimed that the spies were distracted from their real task in order to snoop on journalists and “political opponents”.

Other commentators, such as Robert Paturel, a former member of the elite Raid unit that killed Merah, are asking whether he could have been captured alive if there had not been “political pressure to obtain a rapid result”.

Timeline of French attacks

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