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Toulouse shooter drama shakes up presidential race

Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah was killed in a police assault on Thursday, but the dramatic events he triggered threaten to completely change the course of France's upcoming presidential election.


Exactly one month before 43 million French people head to the polls to pick a new president, one dead gunman upended the entire election. The dramatic incidents in Montauban and Toulouse, which climaxed with the death of 23-year-old Mohamed Merah on Thursday, threatened to change the direction of the campaign.

While taxes, unemployment, immigration and other issues had until recently dominated speeches and slogans, those themes were brushed aside to focus on Merah – the self-proclaimed al Qaida soldier killed at his home in Toulouse by police after a 32-hour standoff.

Merah told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview early Wednesday morning that he had killed seven people as revenge for the French law banning the full Muslim veil in public and French military presence in Afghanistan.

“[Merah] will definitely have an impact on the election,” said Bruno Jeanbart, deputy director general of the polling firm Opinion Way. “Everything will depend on the final outcome, but the theme of security, which has been overlooked since the beginning of the campaign, could now become the central debate.”

Speaking to the AFP news agency, sociologist Sylvain Crepon, a specialist on the far right, said the drama surrounding the slain gunman was "a godsend” for Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front.

"In the short term this could benefit [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy, but in the medium and long term this will legitimise the National Front and its discourse," he said. "[Le Pen] will be able to say 'I was stigmatised while I was right all along.'"

The violent assault on an elderly Frenchman, Paul Voise, three days before the first round of the 2002 presidential election was said to have weighed on results of that election.

The 2002 incident was the cause of widespread outrage, and many in France believe it boosted the score of the National Front’s candidate at the time, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who made security concerns a staple of the National Front’s political discouse decades ago.

Campaigns “on hold”

While incumbent Sarkozy and several other presidential candidates officially put their campaigns on hold, the race continued under the shadow of a violent shooting spree and police assault that gripped the country.

For most of this week Sarkozy’s campaign website featured a single and sombre sentence: “In view of the national tragedy we are living through, I am suspending my presidential campaign at least until Wednesday.”

Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, Green party candidate Eva Joly, and National Front leader Marine Le Pen joined Sarkozy by temporarily suspending their campaigns, cancelling rallies and television appearances while centrist François Bayrou and left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon decided to press on, claiming that was the best response to the violence.

Nevertheless, the election has raged on despite the candidates’ appeals for greater tolerance and national unity, with the candidate’s intermediaries adopting a new alarming tone.

UMP party chief François Copé told the right-wing daily Le Figaro that his rival political camps had “often denied the danger” of religious fundamentalism.

In a press release on Wednesday entitled “To the bastards”, Wallerand de Saint Just, vice president of the far-right National Front, accused Mélenchon and Bayrou of trying to exploit the tragedy in Toulouse against Le Pen, in reference to previous suggestions by the two men that a right-wing sympathiser was probably behind the attacks.

“You should apologize to the National Front, and to Marine Le Pen’s constituents. In any case, you should shut up for a long time,” the National Front’s statement concluded.

According to Opinion Way’s Jeanbart, the apparent entente between candidates was only symbolic. While the candidates stepped back, their supporters continued to wrangle.

“There was a tense atmosphere between the candidates that has been criticised,” Jeanbart said. “[The suspension of campaigns] was an opportunity for candidates to redeem themselves by floating universal values ​​of responsibility, unity and respect.”

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