Election 2012: Security Issues Dominate French Presidential Campaign in Wake of Shootings
Dramatic recent events in Toulouse have propelled security issues to the forefront of the French presidential election campaign.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Following a 32-hour stand-off with police, French citizen Mohamed Merah was killed yesterday by French police as they stormed an apartment in Toulouse, south-west France.
Merah, reported to have al-Qaeda sympathies, is believed to have carried out several high-profile murders in Toulouse and the surrounding area since 11 March.
The tragic series of events have propelled security issues to the forefront of the presidential campaign. This may benefit incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in the short term; however, with a month to go before the first-round vote, the events are unlikely to be decisive to the outcome of the election.
A French RAID police officer searches the apartment
Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian descent, was killed yesterday (22 March) by special operations police officers after a 32-hour siege at an apartment in Toulouse, south-west France. Merah is understood to have been involved in a shoot-out with French security forces before being killed by a single bullet to the head fired by a police sniper as he allegedly tried to escape out of a first-floor window. Merah is suspected of having carried out a series of attacks in Toulouse and the surrounding region over the previous ten days which resulted in the deaths of three French soldiers, three children and a teacher (see France: 20 March 2012: France Launches Huge Manhunt Following Deadly Shootings). Two police officers were reportedly injured in the final assault on the apartment.
Merah was known to French security and intelligence agencies prior to the events of the last ten days. Growing up in a rough suburb of Toulouse, Merah reportedly ran into trouble with the police from a young age, had a number of criminal convictions, and spent some time in prison in 2007 and 2009. He is understood to have undertaken trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan on two occasions in recent years, allegedly attending an Al-Qaeda training camp. Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports that on one of these visits, Merah was arrested by the Afghan police, handed to US authorities and returned to France. François Molins, France's chief anti-terrorism prosecutor, stated that Merah had claimed sympathy with Al-Qaeda and had cited French military actions in Afghanistan, the plight of Palestinians, and the French ban on wearing the Islamic face veil in public, as reasons for his actions before he died. Following the assault on the apartment, French police confirmed that Merah had filmed the attacks he had carried out over the previous days with a camera strapped to his chest. Molins added that on a film of the murder carried out on 11 March, Merah could be heard to say "you kill my brothers, now I'm killing you".
Coming one month before the first round of the French presidential election, candidates have not shied away from trying to gain political capital from the events. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen questioned why the security services had not apprehended the suspected killer prior to his attacks, given his activities and history. She also claimed that many districts of France's poor suburbs were "in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists". Prime Minister François Fillon, a member of the centre-right UMP party of President Nicolas Sarkozy, countered these accusations, stating that there was no evidence that Merah intended to carry out violent attacks. He defended the French domestic intelligence service, the DCRI (Direction central du reseignement intérieur), stating that there was nothing noted in the course of their surveillance that suggested Merah was particularly dangerous and underlining that French law did not permit the arrest of individuals before the act. Nevertheless, President Sarkozy announced yesterday (22 March), that he would seek new laws to allow prosecution of those regularly consulting jihadist online material or travelling abroad for "indoctrination". In a swipe at Socialist Party (PS) presidential candidate and election favourite François Hollande, centre-right UMP party chairman Jean François Copé suggested that the French left had sometimes underestimated the risks of religious fundamentalism in France.
Outlook and Implications
In the wake of these tragic events, all presidential candidates are seeking to frame the ensuing political debate to their advantage. In the short term at least, President Sarkozy should benefit. Over the last few days, he has been able to step out of the role of candidate and back into that of president, unifying the country and appearing decisive and resolute in the face of adversity. In addition, Sarkozy is perceived as the mainstream candidate with the toughest approach to security, which should further bolster his ratings. Far-right candidate Le Pen could also benefit electorally from the events as she has long spoken of the risks of extremist religious ideology and has yet stronger views on domestic security. In contrast, the issues of security, religious tolerance, and integration can be troubling for the French left, which has in the past been divided over taking tougher, more populist stances. Furthermore, Socialist candidate Hollande has been forced out of the limelight during the crisis, as Sarkozy has taken centre stage as president of the republic.
The events in Toulouse are unlikely to prove decisive to the outcome of the election. In the short term, the security debate could well boost Sarkozy's poll numbers, however, with more than four weeks to go until the first round, the fundamental issues of the economy and unemployment are likely to resurface and regain their central role in the debate, to the benefit of the Socialists. In addition, despite drawing closer to Hollande in first-round polls, second-round opinion polls continue to give Hollande a significant lead. Nevertheless, all candidates will have to tread carefully in the coming days as France comes to terms the tragic events in the south-west, as a misjudged statement could have disproportionate consequences.
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