Gunshots that killed the man responsible for the deaths of seven people, including three children at a Jewish school, had barely stopped ringing when candidates in France’s presidential election began flinging charges and countercharges on the case and its handling.
While police yesterday were raiding the apartment of the self-confessed killer, Mohammed Merah, after a 32-hour siege, the head of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party accused the Socialists of being soft on terror. Socialist challenger Francois Hollande and his campaign manager later that day alluded to a “flaw” in the police handling of the case.
Candidates had suspended their campaigns after the March 19 murders of the three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse, which followed two separate attacks on French soldiers that left three paratroopers of North African descent dead. Now, they are back in full force, with security questions lending a new tone to the campaign and both sides seeking to capitalize on the case.
“The politicians have returned to their quarrels very quickly,” said Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster at TNS Sofres in Paris. “Things are taking another dimension, a more political character. The talk is turning to immigration, Islam in France, the efficiency of the police and of the penal system.”
Recent polls have shown Sarkozy gaining support ahead of the first round of elections on April 22. He still remains at least eight points behind Hollande in a potential May 6 run-off.
A poll released today said 74 percent of the French think Sarkozy had the “appropriate attitude” to the Toulouse drama, compared with 56 percent for Hollande. Seventy-one percent thought Sarkozy handled the situation well, according to the TNS-Sofres poll that questioned 1,016 people.
The murders have thrown the spotlight on security, which voters perceive as a strength of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party.
About 58 percent of voters judge Sarkozy “capable of reducing insecurity,” compared with 39 percent for Hollande, according to an Ifop poll last month. The same survey showed a 59-38 perception gap on the ability of the two candidates to “make difficult decisions.”
Sarkozy mentioned Merah right from the start of a campaign speech last night in Strasbourg, his first event after the campaign resumed. He said his opponents were blaming France for Merah’s killings.
War of Words
“Searching for an explanation for this monster would be an unpardonable moral fault,” Sarkozy said. “Blaming society, pointing your finger at the politics or the institutions of France, is unworthy. France is not guilty. Society is not responsible, the Republic has nothing to be ashamed of.”
Sarkozy never said who had made such claims.
Francois Bayrou, a centrist in fourth or fifth place depending on the poll, had said March 20 that France needed “to put an end to a climate of intolerance,” adding that French society is “morally sick.”
Jean-Francois Cope, the head of Sarkozy’s UMP party, held a previously scheduled press conference while French police were carrying out their final assault on Merah’s hideout.
He accused Hollande of “double language,” saying he made “underhanded, insidious comments to blame the president.” Hollande had said in a radio interview that leaders “should control their words.”
Cope also said the Socialist Party hadn’t backed the government efforts against “extremism.” They didn’t vote for measures adopted by Sarkozy’s government to give police more powers to interrogate terrorism suspects or to ban full facial veils, he said.
In his speech, Sarkozy proposed making it a criminal offense to frequent websites promoting violent ideologies.
In a speech in central France last night, Hollande said “what matters is not headline-grabbing events, but the means to apply existing laws.”
He said the police who took part in the raid “deserve all our gratitude,” said that nothing justifies terrorism, and vowed not to exploit the Toulouse events. “I will not get carried away, exaggerate, or engage in polemics,” he said. “The French have for too long had to deal with too many divisions, too many diatribes, too much discord.”
Still, Hollande and his campaign director Pierre Moscovici pointed to comments by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggesting the police maybe could have caught Merah earlier.
“I understand that one could ask a question about whether there has been a flaw in the investigation,” Juppe said on Europe1 yesterday. He later told Agence France-Presse that he never meant to say there had been a “flaw,” just that “clarity” had to be brought to how the case was handled.
The first paratrooper killed was shot by someone who made a rendezvous with him to buy a scooter. Merah emerged in that investigation, along with 575 other people who looked at the soldier’s Internet ad, prosecutor Francois Molins said in an interview yesterday. Investigators didn’t zero in on the 23-year-old Merah’s past dabbling in jihadist activities until after the killings at the Jewish school.
While Merah had a police record, there was nothing to indicate that he might be ready to commit murder, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said today on RTL radio.
Police questioned Merah in late 2011 about his trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, although since he didn’t travel with any terror networks it wasn’t clear if he ever did any terrorism training, Molins said. Merah told intelligence officials that his trips had been for tourism.
The political squabbling may not help anyone in the election, said Riviere, the TNS pollster.
“The voters who are still hesitating may decide that the whole debate has been lowered a notch,” he said.
The two leading candidates are neck-and-neck in the first round. A BVA poll of 978 voters taken March 21 and 22 gave Hollande 29.5 percent support, and 28 percent for Sarkozy.
The Socialist candidate was down 1.5 points since mid-February, while Sarkozy had gained 2 points. The same survey predicted a second round result of 54 percent to 46 percent for Hollande, narrower than the 12-point spread a month ago. The BVA poll has a margin of error of 2.5 points.
So far, security hasn’t been a major issue in the election. Just 15 percent of voters said it will influence their choice, behind the economic crisis at 50 percent, unemployment at 46 percent and government debt at 32 percent, according to the February Ifop poll. Whether the killings will become a voter preoccupation remains to be seen, pollsters said.