The Fallout from Toulouse

Will the massacre in France turn out to be Nicolas Sarkozy's Oklahoma City?

Getty Images
Getty Images

PARIS – The 32-hour standoff that began when authorities surrounded the apartment where terrorist Mohammed Merah was holed up in Toulouse came to a dramatic conclusion on Thursday, March 22, one that’s sure to leave a mark on France, and its politics, for some time.

After police tracked down the killer of seven people — including three small children — they made repeated attempts to detain and negotiate with him. But after a long night in which authorities exploded noise bombs to keep a 23-year-old self-proclaimed al Qaeda supporter from resting, they moved in just prior to 11:30 a.m.

During the four-minute operation that followed, French police fired around 300 bullets and detonated an array of explosives. Cautious cops poked a camera to look into each room before entering — until they reached the bathroom, according to Interior Minister Claude Guéant. "When the camera was introduced into the bathroom, the killer came out…guns firing, and jumped out the window, still shooting," Guéant told journalists in Toulouse.

Other authorities clarified that Merah was wearing a bulletproof vest, that he got off around 30 shots at the police — injuring three, one seriously — and that he made it onto a balcony where, as his guns blazed, a police marksman shot him in the head. (While the public prosecutor François Molins told reporters in Toulouse that Merah "jumped" off the balcony, it now seems clear that the bullet may have facilitated his decision.) Police found the young man’s limp body on the ground, with his Colt .45 pistol nearby.

Merah’s demise put an end to a saga that has shaken a nation already anxious about its sputtering economy and a nerve-wracking election campaign in which economic and xenophobic populism risks becoming the norm. But the 10-day rampage of the "motor scooter killer" was like nothing France has ever seen. The French have become sadly accustomed to hostage crises, radical and anti-Semitic bombings, and assassinations in recent decades, but a Natural Born Killers-style murder tour by motor scooter was something else. In a country where guns are relatively rare, a single man executed three French paratroopers of North African descent, seriously wounded a black soldier, and engaged in a callous assault on a Jewish school in Toulouse before going down firing. For most French people, this could only take place in America — or in a Hollywood film.

Adding to that sense is the now-verified revelation that Merah filmed his gruesome escapades with a GoPro camera strapped to his chest. Molins described the footage as "very explicit," recounting that — during the murder of one of the paratroopers — Merah told his victim, "You kill my brothers. I kill you."

His "brothers," Merah suggested to authorities during the initial period of the standoff when he was speaking to them on a cell phone, apparently included the children of Palestine, and jihadist fighters in various parts of the world, like Afghanistan, where the French military is active. (He justified murdering the children at the Jewish school by claiming it as retaliation for Palestinian children killed in raids by the Israeli military.)

While Merah’s death brought relief across France, it added new layers to the horror and uncertainty that he created. There will be no interrogation of the killer, no clear public explanation of his motives, and only a posthumous evaluation of his mental state.

But a broader examination of the current mental state of France is already beginning. As the nation struggles to get back to normal — even as photos of the cherubic faces of victims (ages four, five, and seven) stared out from the top of Le Figaro newspaper on March 22 — it is clear that the national climate has changed.

For one, a nation with a competent reputation for handling Islamist terrorism — France has avoided jihadist terror on its soil for the last 15 years even as the United States was transformed by 9/11, Spain weathered the 2004 Madrid bombings, and Britain was struck by the 2005 London attacks — feels notably more vulnerable.

And while the new normal involves picking up where things left off — like the presidential election, the first round of which will take place on April 22 — the nature and tone of debate have already transformed. Between now and May 6, when the French will choose the actual president in a run-off, they are sure to change several more times.

A pall of horror continues to linger, making traditional campaigning ungainly, and it is clear that the political and electoral balance has shifted. Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has faced the disapproval of nearly two-thirds of French voters for almost two years, has, during the killer’s reign of terror, finally begun to begun to turn things around somewhat. Emerging surveys suggest that Sarkozy has reclaimed much of his natural base.

Conventional wisdom is that the resolution of the rampage without the deaths of anyone other than Merah will bring an electoral bounty to both Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who currently runs a strong third in all polls, at between 13 and 16 percent. After all, both have spoken out recently about the dangers of radical Islam (sometimes cynically blurring the lines with average Muslims as a form of political populism in their tug-of-war over hard-right and far-right votes).

Whatever the case, Merah fits a convenient profile: the French-born son of Algerian immigrants had a criminal record as a petty criminal (authorities have suggested that his radicalization began during a stint in prison). He was more deeply indoctrinated, they believe, during a pair of trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he appears to have received terrorist training in Waziristan.

Le Pen struck hard this week when it became clear that the attacker claimed to represent al Qaeda. "It is time to wage war on these fundamentalist political religious groups who are killing our children," Le Pen said on the television news channel i-Tele, adding a dig at Sarkozy’s government: "The fundamentalist threat has been underestimated."

Le Pen, who has stigmatized Muslims repeatedly during her campaign — whether related to Muslims praying in the street (because they can’t fit into overcrowded mosques), a hullabaloo about halal viande replacing religion-free meat for non-Muslim consumers, or promising to end nearly all immigration from outside Europe. She even suggested that France should hold a referendum to bring back the death penalty. A substantial majority of the French are against capital punishment, but the proposal is sure to play well to a chunk of the electorate that she and Sarkozy are wrestling over. "Those who kill are children should be risking their own skin," she said.

She even appeared on the Israeli radio station "90FM," broadcast out of Tel Aviv, to attack "Islamic fundamentalism" and Qatari influence. "Entire neighborhoods in the [ghetto] suburbs are under the influence of fundamentalists," she claimed, before asserting that foreign money is adding to the problem, as is the increasing availability of guns. (She didn’t detail the source of her allegations about the Qatari funders.)

By contrast, Sarkozy has — with a notable exception — performed like a convincing head of state in a time of crisis, which is something that has been rare during his term. In recent days, he has repeatedly spoken, with a grave voice, of France’s "dignity" and its "national unity," something that could not be "fractured" by a lone killer. (Merah said his goal was to "bring France to its knees.") In short, Sarkozy has taken this opportunity to be presidential, for once.

Simultaneously, his political allies have relentlessly attacked his main opponent, the Socialist candidate François Hollande, with dubious assertions that he is exploiting the tragedy for political gain. Several accused Hollande of temporarily suspending his presidential campaign, while effectively campaigning via appearances among the mourners. (Exactly the same could be said about Sarkozy, although his presidential role gives him a more formal justification for speaking out.)

Sarkozy has also re-enforced his reputation for deftly driving debates on hot-button issues. On March 22, he promised (constitutionally questionable) legislation that would make it illegal to take part in radical Islamic indoctrination or even to consult websites with extremist rhetoric. Regardless of whether or not this legislation is ever enacted, it is likely to help him with voters on the fence between him and Le Pen, a group he badly needs to have any chance at re-election.

As attention gradually shifts back to the formal presidential campaign, polls show that between Merah’s first murder and his death, Sarkozy has jumped into the lead, at least in the 10-candidate first round of voting. The latest has the president garnering 30 percent support, with Holland taking in 28 percent. While the incumbent’s supporters are portraying this as a victory in itself, Hollande continues to enjoy an 8 to 10 percent lead in a theoretical run-off with Sarkozy in a number of surveys.

Sarkozy, whose character is anything but soothing, could very well overplay his hand, or remind people of his past failures. The notoriously hardworking president has, at times, seemed to be remarkably tired, which might explain his occasional flashes of stunningly off-key communications in recent weeks. The most disturbing recent example came when he told children at a Jewish school in Paris on March 20 that the attack could just as easily have occurred at their school, to them.

Yet the dramatic climax to the manhunt for a killer who nabbed the attention of the country is almost certain to give Sarkozy an additional short-term electoral bounce, and security is clearly a rising issue for the French, as polls will show in the coming days.

But a month can be an eternity in the final stretch of a presidential campaign. The investigations and actions of French authorities are already receiving intense scrutiny, especially around the question of whether they should have caught Merah before the school massacre. (He was tracked down thanks to an online data trail that he had left six days earlier.)

There are certain to be other questions. For one, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Merah was on the FBI terrorist watch list since soon after he was arrested in Afghanistan in 2010. French authorities have admitted that they knew about his past, including his Afghanistan and Pakistan visits, and that they had watched him. (Merah also had run-ins with French police.) So why would he merit being persona non grata in the United States, but not merit greater scrutiny in France? This has all the hallmarks of a brewing inquiry.

In the end, though, barring further violence or threats, the French may well conclude a month from now that the most threatening issues are once again much closer to home: the economy, purchasing power, employment. Right now, though, these seem about as exciting as Hollande himself. But those are the issues that Hollande was winning on, and unless Sarkozy, a former interior minister, can keep the debate squarely on the security front until election day, he may have a very difficult time holding on to his presidential moment.

Eric Pape is a writer in Paris.