Thu | Jun 24, 2021

Terror upends the French election

Published:Monday | March 26, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By John Rapley

France elects its president next month. Until recently, Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger to President Nicolas Sarkozy, was in the driver's seat. President Sarkozy, like most any incumbent during and after the 2008 financial crisis, was struggling to get his poll numbers back up. Austerity had taken a toll, and many ordinary voters were eager to bring in a party that had a JEEP-style plank in it.

Then, a lone gunman killed three soldiers before going on a shooting spree in a Jewish school, and the next thing you know, the whole campaign has been blown open.

At first, suspicion for the crimes fell on the far right, which many reckoned had produced a French version of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who opened fire on a youth camp in the name of racial integrity.

Just days before, Mr Sarkozy had tried to pick up some support on his right flank by taking a tough line on immigration. With the far-right National Front ever a threat, Mr Sarkozy apparently judged he had no choice but to try to pick up some of their support. The tactic appeared to work. His poll numbers finally put him in a competitive position with Mr Hollande.

But when news of the school killings broke, it looked suddenly like his language had been incendiary. He had exposed himself on the right, and the public glare was not kind.

Dramatic raid

Then last week, the police swooped down in a dramatic raid on a Toulouse apartment block. All but certain they'd found their man, their suspicions were confirmed when they encountered gunfire and a shooter willing to boast of his attacks. And the terrorist turned out to be connected to al-Qaida.

Or so he said. A Frenchman of Algerian descent, he appeared to have spent time training as a jihadist in Pakistan. But whether he had anything approximating formal ties to al-Qaida - such as they can exist, given the body's very loose structure - remains unclear. Killed in the raid, he appeared to have been a disaffected young man who had imbibed radical Islam and used it as an outlet for his personal grievances.

Young Arabs in France have no shortage of those. French society has proved itself to be more ambivalent about its minorities than traditional immigrant societies like the US or Canada. Arabs, in particular, are often seen as foreigners, even if they have lived in France for generations. Nobody feels this more acutely than Algerians, whose war against French colonialism bequeathed a particularly fraught relationship. Indeed, the previous leader of the National Front, who is also the father of its current leader, was himself suspected of atrocities in that very war.

Anti-mmigration fervour

So the news that an Islamist was behind the attack was pounced upon by the Front. It cited the terrorism as proof that immigration is a bad thing, and that the government is too soft on criminals.

Curiously, were the tragedy to boost the National Front, it would not displease al-Qaida. There is a unholy synergy between radical Islam and the European far right. Both share a core class-of-civilisation ideology, maintaining that everyone should retreat to their own camp. The National Front, for example, opposes the Afghanistan war that so enrages al-Qaida, seeing it as a foreign venture of no use to France. And while the rise of the National Front would make life more difficult for French Muslims, that too suits the world's Osamas: "Come back home," they would say.

If the operation is seen as swift justice by a strong state, President Sarkozy comes out looking good. But if it turns out that the police could have prevented the tragedy with pre-emptive action - they already had their eyes on the killer, and he was reportedly on a US no-fly list - he will come out looking bad. In the meantime, France's Muslims watch nervously to see how much success the country's racists enjoy in exploiting a tragedy.

John Rapley is a research associate at the International Growth Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rapley.john@gmail.com.