Sarkozy’s Dilemma

Will the French president use the tragedy in Toulouse to scare his people into voting for him? He may have already started.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Photograph by Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty Images.

Not long ago, France seemed headed for the most predictable presidential election in living memory. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was deeply unpopular. The French economy was in crisis. With unemployment soaring, Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign promise that, under him, the French would be able to “work more to earn more” had gone up in smoke. Just as damagingly, many had never forgiven him for what they considered his vulgarity: In their minds, somebody who took his romantic prospects for very public dates in Disneyland or hurled coarse insults against protesters was unsuitable for the highest office in the land.

Even Sarkozy’s re-election campaign seemed strangely halfhearted. At first, he feebly portrayed himself as an experienced statesman who had expertly steered France through the turmoil of the euro crisis. When this didn’t boost his poll numbers, Sarkozy veered sharply, promising to slash immigration, polemicizing about the dangers of halal meat, and generally doing his best to shore up resentment against minorities. His shamelessness drew some deservedly damning headlines. But despite the pandering, Sarkozy continued to trail his principal challenger, François Hollande, in head-to-head matchups.

Hollande, for his part, knew all too well that he was running against an incumbent who has, for much of his tenure, been the most unpopular president in recent French history. Logically enough, he settled for the least ambitious of campaign strategies: He tried to be so nondescript that no one could possibly find a reason to dislike him. Since Hollande’s lack of charisma is genuine, he didn’t have much trouble playing the part. Nobody, not even his own supporters, showed much enthusiasm about his seemingly inevitable victory. Even so, most Frenchmen (as well as some political scientists) assumed that Hollande would ascend to the presidency on May 6.

Then, on March 11, in the southern city of Toulouse, a man on a motorcycle killed Imad Ibn-Ziaten, a French soldier. Police believed it to be an isolated murder. The media paid little attention. But on March 15, in Montauban, about 30 miles north of Toulouse, the same man struck again, killing two soldiers and seriously injuring a third; like Ziaten, all three were French citizens of foreign origin. Finally, this past Monday morning, the killer approached a Jewish school in Toulouse, pitilessly slaughtering Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30; his sons Arieh, 6, and Gabriel, 3; as well as Miriam Monsonego, 8. France fell into shock. Many were also confused. Were the events in Toulouse and Montauban linked? Was the perpetrator a right-wing extremist, an Islamic terrorist—or simply a madman?

In a rare moment of unity, the whole nation showed solidarity with the victims of the killing spree. Sarkozy and Hollande both rushed to Toulouse. Both emphasized that the crimes had been more than an attack on minority groups; they had been an attack on France itself. “Terrorism,” Sarkozy vowed in an about-face from his divisive campaign, “will not be able to fracture our national community.”

But this unity was short-lived. Thanks to some excellent police work, the French authorities quickly identified the killer. Mohammed Merah, a French citizen born in Toulouse to Algerian parents, was a small-time criminal who harbored sympathies for al-Qaida and received some rudimentary training in terror camps near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even as Merah’s house was laid to siege, resulting in his eventual shooting death, the campaigns of Sarkozy and Hollande started to accuse each other of abusing the tragedy for their own purposes. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate whose base Sarkozy has been so desperate to woo, accused the government of dangerously underestimating the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists.

All of this presents Sarkozy with a dilemma. In the aftermath of this week’s attacks, he has played the serious statesman, eloquent in the expression of his grief and conciliatory in his insistence that all citizens, whatever their ethnic origin or religion, are equally French. Considering his long standing as a divisive rabble-rouser, it’s a role he has played surprisingly well. But it is doubtful that this response to the tragedy will boost his chances at re-election. Most polls published in recent weeks showed him trailing Hollande by about 10 percentage points. Now, the first poll undertaken since the massacre at the Jewish school shows that Hollande’s lead has narrowed slightly to eight percentage points. Because there are far fewer swing voters in France than there are in the United States, this is still a comfortable lead. If Sarkozy keeps his recent, more dignified tone he may lose with more votes and more honor than most observers had come to expect—but lose all the same.

The alternative is as clear as it is distasteful: It’s to try to squeeze every last vote out of this tragedy. In France, as in many other parts of Europe, resentment of Muslim immigrants has reached truly toxic levels. But in the absence of large-scale terrorist attacks on French soil, the threat of Islamic terrorism has felt distant. However much the French may resent that halal meat and headscarves are now as much a part of France as are cheese and miniskirts, they never thought that al-Qaida was really out to get them. Now, in one of the more idyllic parts of France, a homegrown terrorist has brutally murdered children and soldiers. If Sarkozy should decide to exploit these events to frighten the French into voting for him, his past record shows that he would know how to go about it.

Everything indicates that Sarkozy needs a true game changer to beat Hollande. Now, the game changer he’s been looking for has been handed to him in the form of a national tragedy. Will he be so unscrupulous as to make the most of it?

The first signs aren’t encouraging. After the twin massacres in Oslo and on the island of Utøya, Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian prime minister, memorably declined to introduce repressive security measures. The best answer to violence, he said at the time, was “more democracy and more openness.” As a result, the horrifying terrorist attack never became a party political issue. But in France, Valérie Rosso-Debord, a key member of Sarkozy’s campaign team, immediately accused the left of voting against tougher laws on “the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration”; Hollande, she claimed, is not qualified to talk about protecting France. Sarkozy, for his part, has already started calling for dubious restrictions on freedom of speech. He has just announced plans to prosecute anyone who dares to “glorify terrorism.” More radically still, “everyone who regularly consults internet sites that glorify terrorism or incite violence will face criminal punishments.” No wonder that Muslim groups in France are fearful that the election campaign will soon descend into “Islamophobic hysteria.”

After a plodding start, the presidential election has, for all the wrong reasons, suddenly become riveting. Will Nicolas Sarkozy, who ascended to high office by being more cynical than all his rivals, unexpectedly redeem himself? Or is he so desperate for five more years in the Élysée Palace that he will sink to even lower lows? Featuring a flawed but fascinating central character who has to choose between good and evil, this is now a deeply personal drama. Its outcome, though, is of the highest political importance. After all, how well France will deal with its rising ethnic tensions is ultimately of much greater importance than whether Hollande or Sarkozy get elected.