With the French presidential elections only weeks away, it is becoming increasingly clear that the shootings committed in Toulouse by 23-year-old Mohammed Merah have dramatically boosted President Nicolas Sarkozy flagging campaign. Having long warned about the dangers of unrestricted immigration and the continuing threat of Islamic terrorism, Sarkozy has been able to present the deaths of eight innocent victims as a tragic illustration of the merits of his platform. By the same token, the “untested” Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande has been left looking increasingly un-statesmanlike in comparison with the image of dignified and professional efficiency that Sarkozy has been so careful to project. A poll published by LH2 on April 1 gave Francois Hollande a paper-thin 1% lead over Sarkozy, while surveys conducted by CSA and TNS-sofres only a few days before showed the President eking out a narrow, but statistically significant, advantage. A victory – however small – in the first round of voting could give Sarkozy the momentum he needs to earn a second term in a run-off against Hollande.
As so often with tragic events, however, the political impact of the Toulouse shootings has not corresponded with the real implications of the tragic events of mid-March. Rather than being an endorsement of Sarkozy’s increasingly right-wing platform, the atrocities committed by Mohammed Merah are an indictment of his political programme and reveal deep-rooted social problems which Hollande’s campaign has sought most assiduously – if ineffectually – to address.
Despite Sarkozy’s rhetoric, Mohammed Merah’s attacks on March 11-19 actually have comparatively little to do either with immigration or with terrorism. This is, in a sense, paradoxical. His choice of victims, his purported links with al-Qaeda, and his claim to have sought “revenge on behalf of Palestinian children” all seem to point towards a personality lost to Islamic extremism and at war with France itself. Yet such evidence is deceptive. Although he is indeed of North African descent, Merah is a French citizen, and was born and raised in Toulouse. As French police have acknowledged, he had no contact with al-Qaeda, and despite travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years, he seems to have had no links with Islamist networks. Instead, his undoubted extremism was the result of a more personal journey. As Francois Molins – the prosecutor acting against Merah – observed, his was a case of “atypical…self-radicalisation”.
But if Merah radicalised himself – apparently in isolation from the support networks which are so commonly associated with such atrocities – why did he do it? Why did this isolated, French-born young man turn to Islamic extremism with such violence and rage? The answer is in the question itself: he did it because he was isolated, atomised, and cut off.