PARIS - "Shell-shocked" best describes the state of the nation here after a rabbi and three children were gunned down in cold blood in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse early this week. Anger had been voiced here and there after similar killings in the preceding days of three paratroopers - two of whom were of Arab descent - in two separate terror attacks. But media coverage of those earlier attacks was nothing out of the ordinary. Since the assault on the school, however, coverage has been ongoing, and the outpouring of grief and horrified condemnations from both politicians and ordinary citizens in broadcast talk shows has been on a scale I have never witnessed before in France in response to an anti-Semitic attack.
The hideous murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris in 2006 by an African-born Frenchman with Islamist sympathies stirred indignation, but also an endless debate as to whether the kidnapping and killing of a Jew by a small-time thug was really an anti-Semitic crime. After the bombing of a Paris synagogue in 1980 that killed four (including passers-by ) and wounded 40, then-Prime Minister Raymond Barre talked about a "revolting terror attack that was aimed at the Israelites inside the synagogue, but had killed innocent Frenchmen who were crossing the street." (Asked in a 2007 interview whether he regretted the statement, he persisted in saying that the terrorists should have limited the killing to the Jews inside the synagogue. )
This time, the school shooting and in particular the fact that three young children were among the victims has stunned the French. Of course, the timing of the event one month before the presidential election, with the campaign now at full speed, has a lot to do with the political dimension that the killings at the Jewish school have taken on.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who in his bid for reelection has been trailing behind his main opponent Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate, in the polls, seized on the occasion to put back on his presidential mantle and lead the nation in mourning. To drive home the point that he was still in charge and that only he enjoys the power of popular representation so crucial in such circumstances - he even suspended his campaign. The previous week he had not felt compelled to react with similar drama to the killings of the paratroopers, an event far less emotionally charged because the victims were soldiers.
The other main contenders to the highest elected office had no choice but to acquiesce and cancel their own campaign events, for fear of being seen as not sharing in the national grief. Only the extreme-left candidates dared to voice a timid protest about the incumbent exploiting the attacks for political gain. In fact, the campaign has continued, but with a different tone, with all the candidates competing to issue the most vigorous call to unity, dignity and the need for justice. Hollande attended a memorial service at a Paris synagogue; six of the candidates were present at the memorial ceremony for the paratroopers.
But since the killings at Ozar Hatorah, it's Sarkozy who has nearly monopolized the ongoing media coverage - hopping from one ceremony to the next, comforting the relatives of the victims, promising that justice would be done, calling for a minute of silence in schools in memory of the slain children, hosting Jewish and Muslim leaders together at the presidential residence, and of course delivering the presidential speech at the ceremony honoring the soldiers, with the other attending candidates mute and staring blankly in the background. He stopped short only of personally escorting the remains of the Jewish victims to their burial site in Jerusalem, and settled for dispatching his foreign minister.
And it may work. Now that, in addition to this display of presidential leadership, the assassin has been stopped, Hollande could quickly lose his lead in the polls - which was always more a sign of French voters' disillusionment with Sarkozy than of a genuine popular appetite for the uncharismatic challenger. In the wake of the killings, Sarkozy has played a shrewd hand that might redeem him on election day - if he can manage to preserve the aura for another month.
But the attack on the Jewish school has also stirred ample and genuine emotion that has nothing to do with political manipulation, or with the abundance of indignant comments voiced by some of the more cynical pundits. Again, that's a first in France. Countless ordinary people are calling in during radio talk shows to express shock and dismay. Since the gunman's identity and alleged ties to Al-Qaida were revealed, French people of Arab descent, many of whom describe themselves as practicing Muslims, are expressing deep compassion for the Jewish victims, and horror at the assassin's claim to have acted in the name of Islam and - some of them add - on behalf of the Palestinians. Rabbis are calling on congregants to refrain from blaming Muslims in general, or Islam as a religion, for what has been done to members of the Jewish community.
So far dissenting views have been rare. Whether this signals a deep change in French perceptions of anti-Semitic acts is difficult to tell, because three of the four victims were children, and understandably, much of the outrage has focused on this fact. But the reactions among French Muslims are unprecedented. Over the past two decades anti-Semitic acts in this country have been predominantly Muslim in origin, and relations between the two communities have been tense. Muslim voices rising to condemn the killing of Jews may be a sign that French Arabs and Jews are getting one step closer to mutual acceptance - a change much-needed, both here and far beyond France's borders.
Corinne Mellul is a political commentator in France.
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