Analysis: Will the Toulouse affair save Sarkozy?

Fighting terrorism boosts the French incumbent’s campaign, and his slogan, “Strong France" fits more than ever.

Sarkozy 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sarkozy 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The bombshell of the Toulouse attacks give the impression of uniqueness, but France has suffered other terrorist events in recent decades, though far fewer than Israel or United States.
The final gun battle and death of Mohamed Merah – responsible for seven deaths in one week – on Thursday morning was an extraordinary denouement after the 32-hour siege by RAID, the elite police unit specializing in hostage situations. I should really write “The Affair,” as it could be comparable to the Lavon Affair of 1954.
In 1963, prime minister David Ben-Gurion resigned from the government and his party following the scandal raised by the obscure affair of spying and attacks, without casualties, ordered by IDF Military Intelligence in Egypt. Israeli politicians were shaken as never before or since. For an entire decade, “Who gave the order?” was the big question for Israeli politicians, commentators and newspaper headlines. Some argue that the Lavon Affair was the beginning of the end of the Labor Party in power and ultimately led to the rise of the forces of the Right in 1977.
There are other parallels to be drawn, again in Israel: In the 1988 general election, the opposition leader, Shimon Peres, was predicted to win against incumbent prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. The day before the vote a Palestinian terrorist killed a mother and her children, changing the situation altogether and keeping Shamir, the leader of Likud hawks, in power.
Again in 2004, the Madrid train bombings resulted in nearly 191 deaths, three days before the parliamentary election, and cost Spanish prime minister José María Aznar his post.
The ways of the voter are unpredictable. As France 2 television presenter David Pujadas said: “There are no rules in elections.”
Starting on Thursday night, a few hours after police commandos killed Merah in Toulouse, the French presidential election campaign reasserted itself. It had been eclipsed by the Islamist’s attack outside the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse’s Côte Pavée neighborhood.
I thought that there could not be another French presidential election as fascinating as the previous one in 2007, which I covered from Paris. It pitted the beautiful and intelligent Ségolène Royale against the charismatic Nicolas Sarkozy. The hatred that Sarkozy has aroused in the years since his election ended his popularity and it appeared to doom his chances of reelection.
The popularity of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the influential director of the International Monetary Fund and the presumed candidate of the Socialists, was rising. His withdrawal after a sex scandal in New York was a breath of fresh air for the camp of the outgoing president, but the polls did not reflect this. The replacement of Strauss-Kahn by François Hollande, a former first secretary of the Socialist Party, and also a former partner of 30 years of Madame Royale, maintained Sarkozy in the position of “the unloved.”
Now the dice are recast and the cards reshuffled. Toulouse presents Sarkozy as presidential again, putting the other candidates in the shade. More than ever, his campaign slogan, “La France Forte” (Strong France) fits him like a glove.
Speaking live from the Elysée Palace soon after the assault, and again later in Strasbourg, the head of state invoked France’s security issues; he is acknowledged as the candidate with the most expertise in this area, going back to when he was interior minister from 2002 to 2007, and even before that as the young mayor of Neuilly-sur- Seine on May 15, 1993, when he personally negotiated with the “Human Bomb,” a man who had taken small children hostage in a kindergarten, putting his life at risk.
“These [Merah’s] are not the crimes of an irresponsible madman, but the inexplicable and inexcusable crimes of a monster and a fanatic,” Sarkozy emphasized while announcing a legislation bill for presentation at the next National Assembly session that would make it a crime to both justify terrorism on an Internet site and to go to a country such as Afghanistan or Pakistan and undergo terrorism training.
Socialist candidate Hollande responded: “New measures are not necessary.”
Green Party candidate Eva Joly did not do better, declaring as “out of place” the presence on the scene in Toulouse of Interior Minister Claude Guéant.
Guéant “welcomed the professionalism and dedication” of the men of RAID and added, “This removes the threat to the population.”
This judgment was shared by the centrist candidate, François Bayrou, president of the Democratic Movement, who said: “National solidarity around those who protect citizens must be expressed.”
It is too early to identify all the political implications of the latest security crisis and we must await the “Toulouse postmortem” to see if there is any electoral reversal.
The killer in the beautiful Pink City, as Toulouse is called, claimed he wanted “to bring France to its knees,” first purging its Muslim community of its bad elements before killing Jewish children identified with Israel and Zionism.
But Merah has mainly had the effect of moving the center of gravity of the public debate from economic issues to more Israeli concerns: security, life and death, and national identity.
Beyond the memories created by the images of police commandos in helmets and masks in single file along a wall, a controversy has broken out about the strategy that was used: “Who gave the order? Could they have avoided killing the killer?” The answer for Sarkozy was clear: “It was inconceivable to expose lives to achieve this goal [capturing Merah alive]; there were already too many dead.”
A TNS Sofres poll conducted for Télé television and released on Friday reported that 74 percent of the French approve of Sarkozy’s handling of the Toulouse murders, while only 56 percent like the way Hollande conducted himself during the crisis.