Al-Qaeda links an election gift for Marine Le Pen
The standoff with a 24-year old Frenchman of Algerian origin who supports al-Qaeda will undoubtedly influence the French presidential election campaign, and could prove a gift for the far-Right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.
Only yesterday, France was grappling with the likely scenario that an ultranationalist loner was targeting minorities after he shot dead two Muslim paratroopers, a West Indian colleague and four French Jews, a teacher and three children.
But it woke up to the news that the killer was Mohammed Merah, an Islamic fundamentalist linked to a Salafist group who had spent time in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan in two separate trips.
Yesterday, analysts were suggesting the attacks might force presidential candidates to tone down their populist discourse that in Nicolas Sarkozy's case had veered Right, particularly on issues of immigration.
The latest developments have sparked a tussle over which issues the campaign will now centre – the need for greater tolerance, understanding and national unity, or anger at perceived laxism towards extremism and a call for a security crackdown that could favour the Right and far-Right.
The debate will be fuelled by the admission of Claude Guéant, the interior minister, that the suspect had been "followed for years" by the DCRI intelligence service. It now transpires he had been arrested for bomb making in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar in 2007 but broke out of jail months later after his three-year sentence was pronounced in a Taliban prison break. He then tried to join the foreign legion, only to be rejected due to psychological problems.
Gérard Longuet, the defence minister, said those who return from terror zones cannot be arrested unless France wanted a "police state" and to create its own Guantánamo.
But Marine Le Pen – who has previously likened Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France – clearly tried to set the tone by claiming the "Islamic fundamentalist threat has been underestimated in our country and political-religious groups are developing due to a certain laxism".
"Security is a theme that has just signed up to the presidential campaign," she said. A national debate around insecurity is said to have helped her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reach round two of presidential elections in 2002.
She also laid into "bastards" who had claimed that the killer had acted due to her anti-immigrant diatribes or claims that the French were eating halal meat without realising it.
Centrist candidate François Bayrou said the FN was clearly hoping to "surf" on the attacks, but warned that "explosive seeds" existed in French society and that politicians must tackle the "risk of importing into French society conflicts that are foreign to us or should be foreign to us." Accused of inflaming tensions in the past, President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted today that acts of terror would not succeed in dividing France, home to the biggest Muslim and Jewish communities in western Europe.
"Terrorism will not succeed in fracturing our national community," Mr Sarkozy said today. "I say to the entire nation that we must be united." Sarkozy said that the French should not be tempted by revenge and should understand that the attacks had nothing to do with religion.
Politically, the unfolding drama could well boost the conservative incumbent's e-election chances. He built his popularity before 2007 elections as France's interior minister and number one cop and has effortlessly reverted to that role. He has acted like a true statesman and has been a model of sangfroid. As head of state, he comes across as the central political protagonist of the drama.
That said, given the gaping security failure of allowing an escaped Taliban convict back into France who went on to kill seven despite being "under surveillance", Sarkozy has plenty of answering to do.
Polls show he has overtaken François Hollande, the Socialist front-runner, in round one and while he still trails him in the run-off, the gap is narrowing.
Hollande is left playing a bit part in the crisis. Today he expressed his "relief, that of all the French people".
Attacked by rivals for being inexperienced, indecisive and a softie, Hollande made it clear he would be as tough on terror as any French leader.
"I remind the French that the fight against terrorism must be pursued unrelentingly, without weakness." In a sign they know this could be a turning point in the presidential campaign, six presidential candidates will take part in this afternoon's funeral of the three murdered paratroopers.