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French election rivals spar over national security

With just four weeks to go before France votes in the first round of the presidential election, the murderous acts of Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah have thrust security to the top of the agenda for the candidates.

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With just four weeks to go before France votes in the first round of the presidential election, the murderous acts of Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah have thrust security to the top of the agenda for the candidates.

The battle to become France’s next president was back in full swing on Sunday, with the rival candidates trading blows on the issue of security.

In the aftermath of Mohamed Merah’s deadly rampage in Toulouse and Montauban, the subject of national security has now emerged as a key battleground for the contenders.

In his latest campaign speech on Saturday, Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande the chief rival to incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy was eager to point the finger of blame in the aftermath of the terrorist shootings.

Sarkozy has “failed”

“On this issue of security, the outgoing president has failed to achieve what he pledged,” 57-year-old Hollande jibed during a speech to around 500 supporters in Corsica. “Nicolas Sarkozy does not have a good record on law and order in France,” he added.

“The French Republic must ensure each citizen’s right to live in safety,” he told his followers.

The importance of national security has not been lost on the 57-year-old French president. Just over an hour after Mohamed Merah’s death on Thursday, a resolute Sarkozy announced his plans to introduce a raft of new measures aimed at tackling the threat of terrorism.

Anyone looking at extremist websites would be punished under new laws and those convicted could face prison. Sarkozy also called for a crack down on indoctrination both online and in training camps abroad. Sarkozy also announced an inquiry into how the country’s prisons are helping to radicalise young Muslim men like Mohamed Merah.

In the face of this raft of new proposed measures, Hollande attacked Sarkozy for knee-jerk policy making. The MP for the district of Correze in central France believes that the current terror laws are sufficient.

“The outgoing president always makes the same mistakes. If he wants new laws, why were they not introduced earlier? Once again, a crisis occurs and he introduces a new law,” Hollande told journalists after his rally in Corsica.

He also accused Sarkozy of exploiting the killings in Toulouse for his own electoral gain.

Hollande is a “ditherer”

Mohamed Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse and Montauban coincided with a boost in the polls for Nicolas Sarkozy.

At the start of February, Hollande had a seven point lead over Sarkozy but that advantage has been gradually whittled down.

On March 23, the day after commandos stormed Merah’s flat to bring his 10 day reign of terror to an end, an opinion poll gauging voter intentions in the first round ballot on April 22 put Sarkozy on 28.5 percent of the vote compared to Hollande’s 27 percent.

Sarkozy tried to force home that advantage at his own campaign rally on Saturday in the town of Rueil-Malmaison in the western suburbs of Paris, where he too was eager to score points against his socialist rival on the issue of security.

He attacked Hollande for never having voted in support of the existing anti-terror laws which he is currently “hiding” behind.

Sarkozy labelled Hollande a “procrastinator and a ditherer” to a crowd of around 3,000 supporters Saturday. The president went on to say, “Refusing to vote for new laws is his right, but they will be passed if the French voters put their faith in me.”.

The president repeated the anti-terror rhetoric of recent days arguing, “terrorism, jihad and violence are not opinions, they are strictly forbidden by the French Republic”.

 Aujourd'hui : "How to better protect ourselves"

“I will hunt all those who preach hatred,” he vowed.

Sarkozy was widely credited in France for his handling of the Toulouse crisis, with 71% praising his efforts in a recent opinion poll. However, in the aftermath of the siege a debate has raged in the French media over police. The intelligence services have also come under fire for failing to detect the threat of Mohamed Merah.

But the French president has firmly defended the actions of the elite police unit RAID who handled the case. “I will not allow anyone to question the honour of those members of the intelligence services and the officers of RAID who risked their lives to bring to an end the trail of bloodshed left by a monster,” he said.

Saturday’s rally also saw Sarkozy revisit the contentious nationalist issues which in the past has left him open to accusations of courting the far right vote.

“We don’t want the burqa,” he said. “We don’t want our municipal swimming pools to have different times for men and women, and we want all our schools to have the same menu for our children.”

Fight fundamentalism

Far right candidate Marine le Pen was also on the campaign trail on Saturday and the events in Toulouse were high on her radar.

While visiting a market in the town of Meaux to the east of Paris, Le Pen targeted the issue of Islamic fundamentalism as the main security threat in France.

She called for a “protest against fundamentalists” and asked all “our Muslim compatriots” to join this movement.

With the first round of the presidential elections only four weeks away and with the country still reeling after the devastating events in Toulouse, national security looks likely to remain a key election battle right up until April 22. 

 

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