Jewish World: In defiant shock

French Jews are reeling from the Toulouse attacks, but leaders say they feel safe and aliya is not the solution.

Mourning the Toulouse shootings 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mourning the Toulouse shootings 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Perhaps it could not have ended any other way.
Mohamed Merah – the man believed to have been behind the brutal murders of a teacher and three children at the Jewish school in Toulouse earlier in the week – was shot dead on Thursday afternoon at the end of a massive manhunt.
Merah managed to shoot and wound two French policemen before he jumped out the balcony of the apartment where he was hiding. He was found dead outside, killed by a bullet to the head.
It was a bloody end to a murderous week. All of France and its Jewish community of roughly 600,000 may finally sigh with relief now that the apparent killer of Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, his two boys Aryeh and Gavriel and another child, Miriam Monsonego, was stopped. But his death signals the end of one drama, and the beginning of another.
Even before the defenestration of Merah on Thursday, many were already asking how the crimes he proudly claimed responsibility for might affect the run up to the French presidential elections set for April 22, with a runoff expected on May 6. The big issue on the agenda before the spate of shootings that left seven dead was the economy.
Socialist candidate François Hollande temporarily took the lead promising to curb capitalist excess and roll back crippling austerity measures passed by the government.
But that agenda seems to have been brushed aside and firmly replaced with national security by Merah’s murders.
Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, France’s Jewish umbrella group, did his best to stay above the political fray while commenting on the election.
“There is no doubt [the shootings] will affect the election, but how exactly I do not know," said the Jewish official, struggling not to sound too partisan.
“Perhaps it will strengthen those who promote a law and order agenda. It is possible.”
Rabbi Avraham Weill, the chief rabbi of Toulouse, was more explicit than his co-religionist.
“Many people will vote for Sarkozy now,” Weill said over the phone from Paris. “He did what he had to do. I spoke to him personally and was impressed by how he managed events. He proved his worth.”
Even before the attacks, Nicolas Sarkozy had retaken the lead in the polls from his main rival Hollande.
The incumbent, who first made a name for himself campaigning on a law and order ticket, is likely to benefit politically in the short run, but the events of the past week may come back to haunt him.
Over the past 48 hours a large body of evidence has come to light indicating that perhaps Merah should have been apprehended much sooner. The 24-yearold of Algerian descent was known to have traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he is even said to have been arrested for being involved in the insurgency. And yet it took 10 days and three fatal attacks killing seven people before police tracked him down to his mother’s apartment.
“If he was indeed in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in prison in Kandahar as one report says and he managed to come back to France, there are a lot of questions to be asked,” former FBI agent Jack Cloonan told France 24 television.
Cloonan added that a person with Merah’s background would be kept under constant surveillance in the US.
Initial responses by the French government have dismissed such criticisms even praising security forces for their conduct over the past week.
“It’s true that there are lists of people who may be suspect in such events because of their ties to terror groups,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, in Israel for the Jewish victims’ funerals, told press in Jaffa through a translator. “However, the link between this man and the attacks... that link was made only on Monday night and could have been made only after the attack [on the Jewish school].”
From the Jewish community, also, there has been nothing but praise for law enforcement so far.
“French security forces are considered among the fact to think France has not had a killing spree like in Spain and the UK and other places even though we have a very sizable proportion of fanatics says something about their work," said Prasquier.
If, however, it turns out that security forces were at fault for not arresting Merah earlier then Sarkozy might take the flak. In such a scenario Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front might pick up some of his supporters or perhaps the incumbent's law and order card won't carry much weight with the electorate.
Whatever happens in the election, for the Jewish community the killings are a game changer. Prasquier said he expects heightened security around Jewish institutions for the foreseeable future. He added that the killings, which Merah said were committed in retaliation for atrocities carried out by Israelis against Palestinians, might change the way Israel is covered by the national press.
“It is clear there is a degree of misinformation about Israel, there is a degree of being lax in accepting some images like the killing of children by Israeli forces and presenting them in the French press,” Merah said. “This is something that has to change.”
At the same time, Prasquier wanted to send a clear message to Israeli politicians: Jews are safe in France and do not have to make aliya to feel secure.
“I do not accept the idea that Jews are not safe here,” he said. “Just look at the reaction of the government to the attack. Most of the anti-Semites here are not tolerated.
Those politicians in Israel who say there is a need to make aliya now simply do not know our country.