For France’s far-right Marine Le Pen, the tragic bloodshed in Toulouse has simply proven what her party has been saying for years about French identity.
Since the shootings, Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president, has likewise chosen to focus his re-election campaign on “security” against the perceived threat of “radical Islam”.
With France’s presidential elections set for April 22 and May 6, some commentators are condemning the right-wing candidates for attempting to use the case of Mohamed Merah, the alleged gunman who killed seven people, to misrepresent complex issues such as religion, immigration and integration.
Speaking before a crowd of 1,500 supporters on the outskirts of the town of Nantes on March 25, three days after police killed the alleged gunman, Le Pen gave the most violent speech of her campaign to date.
Merah was “Magrebin”, she affirmed, spitting out the term to emphasize his North African ancestry – his parents were Algerian immigrants – to a crowd that stomped its feet and roared with approval.
“How many Mohamed Merahs arrive in France every day, in the boats and planes full of immigrants?” she asked, paying little heed to the fact that the alleged gunman was born and raised in France.
“How did he manage to get French nationality?” she said, her voice husky and incredulous.
The biggest threat to 21st centuary France was what she called “Islamoleftism”, a word she has coined to describe what she considers an unhealthy alliance between “Islamist fanatics” and the French Left.
|Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen questioned how Merah, born and raised in France, had obtained French nationality [AP]|
Sarkozy, she said, has allowed his government to be “corrupted” by the “culture of perpetual apology”.
If she were president, she promised to have the French secret services eavesdrop on all “radical” French mosques. Muslims who travelled to Afghanistan would be immediately deported to their country of origin if possible, or, in the case of French citizens, forced to wear an electronic ankle bracelet.
“We will act with zero tolerance,” she said.
Although Le Pen views Merah as “Algerian”, the Algerians see him as French. Despite initially authorising a request for his body to be buried in the country of his father, the Algerian government changed course after the proposal drew outrage amongst the Algerian public, Le Monde reported (French).
Hunting the ‘monster’
Not to be outdone, Sarkozy has also responded to the shootings in Montauban and Toulouse by spearheading the most extensive crackdown on “Muslim fundamentalists” France has seen since 1993.
The president spearheaded raids last Friday, in which 17 suspected “radical Islamists” were arrested.
There were 10 more arrests on Wednesday. Sarkozy has vowed that this is only the beginning.
At the same time, his government has refused to allow the heads of France domestic and overseas intelligence agencies to appear before a Senate committee to respond to questions over possible intelligence failures in the way they handled Merah’s case.
François Hollande, the Socialist candidate who has been leading the polls for most of the campaign, has argued that the government should reflect on the circumstances that may have allowed Merah to carry out three successful attacks.
“What is important is to evaluate the [existing] laws and how they were applied. Then, if changes are needed, this will happen after the elections,” Hollande said last week, Le Monde reported.
François Bayrou, the presidential candidate for centrist Democratic Movement, has repeatedly called for the debate to focus on the social causes behind the shootings, rather than demonising a segment of the French population.
“[Politicians are] pointing fingers at people because of their ancestry to incite passions, and they are doing it because in the fire, there are votes to be had,” he said.
“How many Mohamed Merahs arrive in France every day, in the boats and planes full of immigrants?”
– Marine Le Pen
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate for the Left Party, and Eva Joly, the candidate for the Green Party, have each also condemned the “discriminatory discourse” which they say is coming from Sarkozy’s government in response to the shootings.
Responding to such criticisms, Sarkozy said Merah was a “monster” and that searching for any social factors that may have been factors in the shootings was “an unpardonable moral error”.
“Blaming society, pointing the finger at France, its policies, its institutions, it’s disgraceful,” he said.
Like Le Pen, Sarkozy has confused the issues. With his comments on the “Muslim appearance” of the soldiers, he drew a strong response from the father of Abel Chennouf, a Catholic paratrooper of Berber ethnicity who was one of those killed.
“I ask the president of the Republic to think about what he is saying,” Albert Chennouf told BFMTV. “The family of Abel wishes, in respect of all religions, that his be respected as well… in the armed services there are only brothers in arms.”
Elyamine Settoul, a political sociologist at Sciences Po, argued that by fixating on the story of Merah, a disturbed and socially isolated individual, politicians are ignoring the many stories of the children of immigrants who do play a positive role in French society, and who embrace its institutions and values.
“What is sad about the state of the current debate is that, instead of speaking about the real evolutions taking place, we’re obsessing over a news story that doesn’t reflect the reality of French society,” he said.
“I think these are political strategies to make the population feel more insecure.”
Beginning on March 11, Merah carried out three attacks. He killed three elite soldiers of North African ancestry and injured a fourth, a Catholic of West Indian origin. His final attack killed three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi.
The evidence suggests he targeted the paratroopers as a way of condemning the many French Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan.
“We’ll never hear the minister talking about the Muslim soldiers who’ve died for France.”
– Elyamine Settoul, a political sociologist
Prior to taking this violent path, Merah had himself twice tried to join the army. A repeat offender who had been arrested many times in his teenage years, the army refused to accept him.
In trying to find his way through the military, Settoul said, Merah was not unlike many French teenagers born to immigrants or the grandchildren of immigrants.
“I think he tried to get into the army because, today you have many young people who are struggling with academic failure and discrimination who can find a sort of family in the army, emotional and professional relationships,” he said.
On his alternative route, it was another French institution that helped mould Merah’s identity – prison. It was there that he discovered his peculiar interpretation of Islam.
By 2010 and 2011, he was making trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, allegedly reaching out to al-Qaeda.
Since France ended compulsory military service in 1996, the military needed to attract recruits and found a readily available pool in the disenfranchised suburban youth.
“They recruit everyone without distinction, there is no discrimination,” he said, noting the difference with French police, which have a much more negative relationship with second- and third-generation French citizens.
Paradoxically, only upon their deaths did the French public learn about the likes of Imad Ibn Ziaten, 30, Abel Chennouf, 25, and Mohamed Legouad, 23.
And many more like them, whether of North African descent, Muslim, or both, have died whilst on mission in Afghanistan with little official acknowledgement.
“We’ll never hear the minister talking about the Muslim soldiers who’ve died for France,” Settoul said, estimating that around a dozen of the 82 French soldiers who have died since the mission began there in 2001.
Even now, however, Merah is the one dominating the political conservation.
Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan