France ‘poisoned by divisions’, says presidential hopeful

4 min

Centrist presidential hopeful Francois Bayrou refused to join other candidates in halting his campaign following Mohamed Merah's recent killing spree in Toulouse, which he had blamed on growing racial divisions in France.


At least one candidate in the forthcoming presidential election refused to halt his campaign in the wake of the killing of four people outside a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, hinting that creeping xenophobia in France may have been responsible.

Francois Bayrou, of the centrist MoDem party, on Monday said that anti-foreigner sentiment had crept into the election debate and that certain parties “were pointing the finger at people because of their origins and fanning passions in order to gain political capital.”

Islamic extremist Mohamed Merah, 23, of Toulouse confessed to the shootings during a 32-hour standoff with police. Merah, who had claimed links to al Qaeda, was killed when police stormed his flat on Thursday morning.

And while the main candidates – incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, Socialist Francois Hollande and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front – had put their campaigns on hold in solidarity with the French Jewish community, Bayrou carried on.

Speaking at a campaign meeting in Grenoble before Merah had been identified as the killer, 60-year-old Bayrou said that France had become “poisoned by divisions” and that the killings in Toulouse “had their roots in the current state of French society.”“

"These subjects come up in debates, people use certain words and the implications snowball out of all proportion,” he told his supporters.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe then accused Francois Bayrou of “adding the vile to the horrible” by refusing to suspend his campaign

“It is good that the French political class has reacted with dignity and in a spirit of national unity,” Juppe told FRANCE 2. “No politician should be trying to win political capital from a tragedy which has absolutely nothing to do with the political campaign.”

France’s swing to the right

Sarkozy has been accused of taking a swing to the right during his presidency in a desperate bid to win back conservative voters who have drifted over to the far-right National Front.

In July 2010, the leader of the centre-right UMP party explicitly linked immigration to delinquency and launched a widely criticised crackdown on illegal Roma (Gypsy) camps in France. His government also passed a law in 2011 banning women from wearing full Islamic veils.

And in early March Sarkozy announced that he wanted to halve the number of immigrants coming into the country (from 200,000 to 100,000 a year) and toughen the criteria for the naturalisation of foreigners in the country.

The announcement followed a debate launched in February by the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen against Islamic halal and Jewish kosher meat butchering practices.

Leaders of the two faiths in France were outraged when Sarkozy’s Prime Minister Francois Fillon appeared to jump on the bandwagon in early March, calling on Jews and Muslims to consider scrapping their “outdated” slaughter rules.

Ethnic and religious minority ‘scapegoats’

Benjamin Abtal, head of French rights group SOS Racisme, told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday that while he approved of politicians temporarily putting their differences aside, he hoped that a pause in the campaign would herald a new consensus among the main political parties on the subject of race.

“All over Europe there is a stigmatisation and finger pointing at ethnic and religious minorities who are being made scapegoats of the financial crisis,” he said. “And we have seen much of the same rhetoric in the [French] presidential campaign, singling out minorities and designating them as enemies, as if we were in a civil war against enemies on our soil.”

On Tuesday the head of France’s Council of Jewish Institutions (CRIF) Richard Pasquier in a statement defended the decision by the majority of France’s presidential candidates to halt campaigning as “admirable”.

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