A stunned France

As someone who is half French but lives in London, I was taken aback by the recent terrorist shootings in Toulouse. To me, this town is somewhere quaintly French, sunny, and famous for – well – sausages. For many, this is no longer the case.

Two weeks ago, France was horrified by the shootings of three off-duty soldiers and the attempted murder of a fourth. The perpetrator was seen fleeing on a scooter. Four days later, he opened fire outside a Jewish school just as parents were dropping off their children, killing a teacher and his two children and another child. Again, the gunman used a scooter to get away.

Having been given intelligence by a motorbike salesman, who had been asked for advice on repainting a scooter by the suspects brother, the police moved in. They surrounded the flat of Mohamed Merah, and a siege ensued. Negotiations progressed, only to be met by deadening silence. When no movement or noise had been detected for some hours, the police stormed the building but were repelled by Merah. It appeared that he had specialist training. A subsequent raid resulted in Merah’s suicide.

With the immediate threat removed, attention turned to the wider implications of the attacks. It quickly emerged that Merah was long known to the intelligence services, but they said that they had seen nothing to suggest that he was capable of or planning such attacks. News agencies also reported that he had travelled repeatedly to Afganistan and Pakistan and that – before he died – he told police that he was was working under the instructions of al-Qaeda. He claimed to be avenging the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Many found themselves wondering if the shootings could have been prevented. There is also widespread concern that Merah was not acting alone. But these questions are almost irrelevant – what has happened can not be erased from history. What is important is what happens now in the world of politics.

For France is in full campaign mode – presidential elections will be held in May. Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right incumbent (always described as mercurial), is up against the Socialist Francois Hollande, the far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon. It is probably unlikely that Melenchon will win – although my uncle would have it differently. So we are left with the unfortunate choice between Sarko, Hollande and Le Pen.

France has a slightly odd election process which involves a second round run-off. So the question is which two candidates will make it to the second ballot. Sarkozy has been trailing Hollande in much of the campaign but the events in Toulouse may have helped him since he has taken an increasingly protectionist line. While it still looked as if Merah’s attacks were a form of far-right extremism, Le Pen looked to suffer – but now she may get a boost. For me, this may be the most serious outcome of the shootings. Under normal circumstances I would expect the second ballot to be a vote between Sarkozy and Hollande, who would each pick up the vote of their more extreme counterparts. If Le Pen appeared instead of either of them she could, theoretically, win. As a liberal, the very thought terrifies me. I can only hope that the French see sense.

To be honest, they probably will. France is a nation of socialists fed up with a right-wing President. They are likely to go for Hollande. Which is good for London. Huh? Here’s why: Hollande wants to imposer a lovely 75% tax rate on the highest earners. Some will pay, undoubtedly, but many others will leave. The globalised rich have no boarders and London will seem attractive. That would obviously not be good for France.

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