A campaign that was focused on economic struggles and personality comparisons may suddenly shift to the topic of crime and security, which could benefit President Nicolas Sarkozy. There are echoes of the campaign of 2002, marked by a brutal shooting just
In schools across France on Tuesday, students and teachers observed a rare national moment of silence following the murders of three children and a religion teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse. The entire nation is filled right now with both sorrow and indignation.
Meanwhile, a manhunt has been launched to track down the perpetrator, suspected of also being responsible for the murders last week in the same region of three French soldiers, two Muslims of North African descent and a third of Caribbean origin.
The shootings come less than two months before France goes to the polls to elect its president, and have raised serious questions concerning the idea of "vivre ensemble" (living together), an unofficial motto that accompanies every election in France.
While the candidates had been largely focused on the economy, and even spent time talking of lighter matters and exchanging personal jibes, suddenly the very present issue of security returns to center stage of the campaign.
On Monday, France's national security alert was updated to "Scarlet", its highest level, for the first time since 2001. Eight hundred riot policemen were dispatched in the Midi-Pyrénées region, and France's Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, temporarily moved his office to Toulouse.
The presidential campaign has officially been suspended until at least Wednesday, when two of the three soldiers will be buried. But is it really possible to put a presidential campaign on hold?
So far, the candidates have refrained from exploiting the event – and let's hope it stays that way. Still, several of them decided to go to Toulouse, before attending a memorial ceremony at the Nazareth Synagogue in Paris. Being seen before the cameras at such a crucial time is particularly important for all the challengers to President Nicolas Sarkozy.
A change in political climate
And yet even as it is suspended, the presidential race has hereby switched both gears and tone. The frantic pace will give way to a slower rhythm, as security questions are likely to move to the center of the political debate. But for how long?
It all begs the question: Is this French presidential election going to repeat the end of the 2002 campaign? Ten years ago, towards the end of March, 33-year-old gunman Richard Durn opened fire at the end of a city council meeting in Nanterre, in the western suburbs of Paris, killing eight members of the council.
A couple of days later, as we all remember, far-right wing candidate Jean-Marie le Pen finished second in a crowded field, qualifying for the final round of the presidential election. (He was ultimately defeated by Jacques Chirac)
One should always be careful when comparing different presidential campaigns. But this year's race is edging toward terrain where the right is traditionally more comfortable. As a candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy was in trouble, struggling to regain ground in polls; now he has been able to put his presidential hat back on, taking over the reins of the country just forty days before the election. And at the same time, some people still have difficulty imagining François Hollande, Sarkozy's main opponent, as head of state.
The spotlight will be on Sarkozy for the next couple of days, presenting himself as the defender of a Republic weakened by the recent attacks on two of its pillars – education and the military. The names of the seven victims on Liberation"s black cover speak for themselves. In an anti-foreign, anti-Islam context largely fed by Nicolas Sarkozy and his UMP party, this situation will be just the latest paradox of this presidential campaign.
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