by Aube Rey Lescure
France was shaken on March 19th when news about the killing of a rabbi and three Jewish children at a religious school in the city of Toulouse reached the public. The city had, in that same week, also witnessed the murder of a paratrooper and three soldiers. The weapon used for the murders was identified as being the same and a link thus immediately established, although the identity of the killer was still unknown for the first few days after the murders. Last Thursday, France’s most elite unit RAID tracked down the suspect Mohamed Merah in his house but did not manage to capture him alive after a 33-hour stand-off. The suspect threw himself out of his house window while firing at the police.
Already a nation in which a sole kidnapping and disappearance often makes headlines for days on end, France is in upheaval because of this series of killings, the first real major terrorist act the hexagon has seen in years. Merah not only cold-bloodedly selected only soldiers of African and Muslim descent to murder, but also went as far as gunning down a 3-year old, a 6-year old and an 8-year old as well as the father of two of the former. His reason? They were Jewish, and “the children of Palestine had to be avenged”.
Merah claimed to be acting on behalf of al-Qaeda, although it appears that the connection was just a one-way delusion of his. What made the case a national scandal is that Merah was not an unknown hermit. French intelligence forces long had Merah on their radar as a petty criminal and potential extremist. Merah was also on the U.S.’ blacklist of people forbidden to board a flight—the whole situation being oddly reminiscent of the underwear bomber episode from a few Christmases ago when security forces failed to prevent a suspected terrorist from boarding a Detroit-bound plane. Similarly, the French intelligence is now being accused of general negligence towards what could have been a preventable tragedy.
Preventable? Nicholas Sarkozy disagrees. The French president is staunchly standing on the side of the “forces of order”. As Merah had actually not committed any traceable crime after his last prison years, it would have been unconstitutional for the French police to monitor him (which casts an interesting albeit distant parallel to the recent US case concerning the legality of the NYPD monitoring Muslim student organizations). Where must the line be drawn between constitutional rights and what to some people seem to be the obvious option of keeping track of a deranged, already previously imprisoned man? Sarkozy, interestingly, has thereby told the nation exactly where he stands on the issue. Given his previous efforts to swing anti-immigration voters from Marine Le Pen’s National Front to his own UMP, Sarkozy’s words and deeds regarding the Toulouse tragedy are now under daily scrutiny by all major newspapers of the country. Islamophobia and anti-terrorism are now most definitely one of the most important election issues. Sarkozy seems to be playing the field rather well, urging the population not to radicalize against France’s extremely large and significant Muslim population one day while criticizing his presidential competitor Francois Hollande for not being tough enough on anti-terrorism and absenting from burqa-law voting the next.
The bodies of the victims have either been given national military honors or shipped back to Israel for burial. The nation is still torn between mourning and the spiraling politicization of the issue, with large public protests against anti-Semitism and generally heightened racial tensions now engulfing voter attention in these few precious months left before the presidential elections.
Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on E.U. affairs. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.