If Mohammed Merah did not exist, Nicolas Sarkozy would have invented him. It is hard to overstate how perfectly Merah—who murdered three paratroopers and four French Jews before being killed on March 22 by special police forces after a tense standoff outside his Toulouse apartment—plays into the president’s electoral endgame. I may be overreacting to the drama of the moment, but I predict that Sarkozy will be reelected and that the past forty-eight hours will be seen as the decisive turning point in his road to victory. I also think this is a profoundly sad moment: in the months to come, French society, politics, and public discourse will suffer considerably from this tragic incident.
First, the Merah debacle burnishes what is often considered Sarkozy’s most compelling political credential: his status as a tough-talking , risk-taking, no-nonsense security hawk. He first attracted national attention as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1993 when he negotiated directly with a hostage-taker who had taken over a local school with explosives strapped to his body (dubbing himself—in English—the “Human Bomb”). Interestingly, this incident also ended with SWAT teams (or, as the French called them, the RAID) killing the perpetrator. As interior minister between 2002 and 2007 (save for a brief hiatus), Sarkozy honed his reputation as France’s “top cop,” famously declaring that immigrant banlieus had to be cleansed of their criminals by a “Kärcher”—an industrial-grade cleaner. When two children of immigrant origin died while being pursued by the police in late 2005, the banlieus exploded—and Sarkozy was the target of their ire. He dismissed them as “racaille,” or “scum”. As president, Sarkozy has seen this reputation of toughness dissipate. He often comes across impetuous rather than strong. His energies have been consumed by a precarious economy, rising income inequality, and a festering European debt crisis. Now, thanks to Merah, he is top cop once again.
Secondly, Merah provides Sarkozy with a perfect occasion to play his trump card: namely, that he can beat the National Front at its own game. In 2007, his gambit was to prevail over the left by nibbling into the far right’s electorate. Sarkozy won, and, for the first time since 1988, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s share of the vote declined. In the wake of the Toulouse standoff, Sarkozy is in a position to pull off this feat once again. He will wage a two-front war against the socialists and the far right. He can denounce the socialists, who emphasize issues like civil liberties and granting residency to certain categories of illegal immigrants (“les sans papiers”), as soft on security and tepid in their defense of French identity. Sarkozy can assume the mantle protector-in-chief of the French nation against enemies foreign and domestic, particularly as Merah—a Frenchmen of Algerian origin who trained at Al Quaeda camps in Afghanistan—was both. This muscular defense of French identity steals much of the National Front’s thunder. At the same time, Merah also lets Sarkozy distance himself from the Front’s most unsavory aspects. While evoking the Islamist menace that Merah purportedly represents, Sarkozy can nonetheless appear to take the high ground by denouncing hate crimes against Arabs and Jews—something that Marine Le Pen (the current National Front candidate), despite her efforts to soften her party’s image, could never credibly get away with, given her party’s racist and anti-Semitic history. Thanks to Merah, Sarkozy can tap into the National Front’s appeal without exposing himself to the stigma of its more or less overt racism.
Finally, the Toulouse debacle fits seamlessly into the political narrative that Sarkozy has promoted throughout his presidency. Because of immigration and multiculturalism, Sarkozy has repeatedly suggested, France is experiencing a profound identity crisis. French people need to reinvigorate their sense of national identity. This was the implicit message of the “Great Debate on National Identity” launched in 2009 by immigration minister (and former socialist) Eric Besson—an initiative that many on the left felt was redolent of the reactionary nationalism of the Vichy era. The apparent crisis of French identity was also the subtext of the recent controversy about halal meat instigated by members of Sarkozy’s party and Marine Le Pen: they contended that meat from animals that had been ritually slaughtered in keeping with Islamic principles was taking over the French market and that unsuspecting non-Muslims were, because the meat was not properly labeled, eating it. Furthermore, Sarkozy recently asserted point blank that France had too many foreigners, and that, if reelected, he would nearly halve the number of those who immigrate to France each year, in addition to restricting their access to social welfare. He also threatened to pull France out of the Schengen accords (which unite twenty-three EU countries in a passport-free zone) unless illegal immigration is controlled. Sarkozy has, in these ways, tried to lodge into the minds of the French the notion that national identity is under assault—that the presence of a large immigrant community on French soil has watered down French identity to the point of meaninglessness. An immigrant like Merah, who kills not only French citizens but also French soldiers—the ultimate symbol of national identity—fits perfectly into the president’s narrative about the nation’s predicament.
The way that Sarkozy tries to sell his conception of French national identity—i.e., the French aren’t racist, but certain racial minorities are—can be seen in a peculiar remark he made in a major campaign speech in Bordeaux on March 3. “There is no place in the Republic for xenophobia,” he intoned, “there is no place in the Republic for racism. And there is no place in the Republic for swimming pools where there is a schedule for woman and a schedule for men!” In implying that segregated swimming pools are racist, he elides the fact that this criticism is itself profoundly xenophobic.
A screenwriter once explained to me that in a romantic comedy, the audience knows what will happen but doesn’t know how it will happen. The same could be said about Sarkozy’s reelection: we knew he would play on French anxieties about security and national identity, but we weren’t exactly sure how. Thanks to Mohammed Merah, we now know.