Has 'Supercop' let down France's Muslims? Maybe

The tragic killings in France will be seen through the lens of Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election bid, and his image as France's "Supercop".

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In May 1993 an ambitious young politician, mayor of the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, burst on to France's national political scene during a hostage drama at a local kindergarten. A mentally unstable man had strapped explosives to his waist and threatened to blow up the children. The mayor took over the negotiations with the kidnapper, speaking to him through the classroom door. As the drama unfolded over two days, it was the mayor who starred in the news footage, carrying the infants to safety one by one as they were released.

That mayor was, of course, the young Nicolas Sarkozy, whose energy propelled him to be president of France. On the way he acquired the nickname "Supercop" for his tough law-and-order agenda, and love of being seen with the police.

All of France is asking if the tragic events of this month - the shooting dead of three paratroops and three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school - will affect the French presidential election, whose first round is April 22. Could it be a repeat of the kindergarten drama for Mr Sarkozy? He is lagging behind the Socialist challenger François Hollande, as he tries to overcome a reputation for giving priority to frenetic activity over real action and poisoning the political debate by stressing anti-immigrant themes.

France's neighbours would not be unhappy if Mr Sarkozy got a boost. The socialist challenger has declared that his enemy is "finance" and promised to review the painfully negotiated regime of fiscal austerity being imposed on the countries using the euro. Revisiting the fiscal pact would be a setback for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and she has, perhaps unwisely, committed herself to campaign for Mr Sarkozy.

What is clear is that this is the time of greatest danger for the incumbent. Any suggestion that he is using the murders for political advantage would be a disaster. He is well aware of the example of the former Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, a supporter of the invasion of Iraq. Mr Aznar's party's was whipped at the 2004 elections after he blamed the Madrid railway bombings on Basque terrorists, rather than the real culprits - jihadists bent on vengeance.

So far Mr Sarkozy has been able to appear in his presidential role during the crisis, with Mr Hollande confined to the roll of the challenger at the memorial ceremony for the dead soldiers.

If the killer had proved to be a right-wing anti-immigrant extremist, the theory promoted by much of the media until the identification of self-confessed culprit, Mohammed Merah, Mr Sarkozy would have been under fire for promoting a "growing climate of intolerance", in the words of the centrist candidate, François Bayrou. (Mr Merah was killed after a standoff in Toulouse yesterday).

It is probably too early to judge how this will affect the election; it could be more positive for Mr Sarkozy than negative.

But it is not clear-cut. For a start the administration of "Supercop" has fallen down badly in its policing. The chief suspect had been followed by French intelligence after at least two visits to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, where he claims to have been trained by Al Qaeda. He was known to the police, both as a petty criminal and a suspected jihadist, but still was able to amass an arsenal of weapons and carry out three separate killings.

People close to the security services say it is impossible to stop a "lone wolf" jihadist. But the French authorities seem to have been blinded by the absence in the past of home-grown terror cells.

That French exceptionalism has passed: there are similarities with incidents in other countries: the choice of a pre-election period for maximum impact, as in the Madrid bombings, and the targeting of Muslims who served in their country's armed forces, which recalls a failed British plot to kidnap and kill Muslim soldiers.

The three soldiers killed were all of North African origin, and a fourth, who was wounded, is of Caribbean origin. There is here an element of "takfir" - the ideology of the jihadists that they have the right to identify and kill those Muslims who do not subscribe to their own harsh tenets.

But the aim of the killings seems to have been to suggest that Muslims have an obligation not to integrate into European countries. They should remain ghettoised - in the eyes of the jihadists - until they are able to conquer those lands.

This is where the true significance of the killings emerges. France has never subscribed to multiculturalism, the idea that a state can be composed of communities of different cultures. France still holds to the idea that being French involves subscribing to one set of secular, republican ideals. Hence the banning of women wearing Islamic veils across their faces in public, which is deemed not a religious choice but an affront to the secular state.

The debate between these two approaches will never end. But viewed from other European states, the French ideal looks like a rather nostalgic harking back to an era (which never existed) when the French were one nation. With France hosting Europe's largest Muslim population, this ideal is impossible to recreate.

Gilles Kepel, a leading French commentator on Islam, predicts that the result of these tragic incidents will be greater pressure on Muslims to conform to the republican norm. "There will be strong pressure exerted on the groups which consider that belonging to another entity - religious or national - takes precedence over the fact that everybody is French," he says.

This "strong pressure" sounds like more of the same medicine which has so far failed many of France's Muslims. The republican ideals of France are wonderful on paper, but the net effect has been to concentrate immigrant communities in soulless and jobless ghettoes on the outskirts of cities.

In the end, the murders this month may not have a decisive effect on the election result. The real question is, will the response of the authorities help or hinder, over the long term, the integration of France's Muslims?

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