Toulouse and the French Election: Who Stands to Gain and Who Stands to Lose?

Like the Madrid train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004 that took 191 lives and wounded 1,800, the deaths of a rabbi and three Jewish children in Toulouse are liable to be etched on the French collective memory.

The Spaniards have March 11 - the day in 2004 when Islamists inspired by al-Qaida bombed commuter trains, killed 191 people, and undoubtedly determined the results of national elections three days later.

Now the French have March 19, the day of the attack in Toulouse, which may help determine the results of France's presidential elections at the end of next month.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

On March 11, 2004, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar claimed that the Basque rebel underground had been behind the train bombings. Three days later, voters showed him the door, shifting power to his Socialist rival, Jose Luis Zapatero.

Will March 19 be for the French a reversal of what occurred to its Iberian neighbor? Will the fact that the Toulouse attacker was an Islamist - and not a neo-Nazi as was first claimed - leave President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace and douse the dreams harbored by Socialist candidate Francois Hollande?

Until only a few days ago, Sarkozy seemed to be poisoning the political atmosphere when he chose to use nationalist rhetoric, apparently aimed at attracting votes away from the extreme right of Marine Le Pen. He spoke of "too many immigrants" and against the Muslim halal method of slaughter, their mass prayers in the street, their head coverings and "symbols that express cultural differences."

He called to limit immigration, reduce the number of people allowed to become citizens, and threatened to take France out of the Schengen Convention, one of the foundation stones of European integration, which in 1985 declared much of Europe a passport-free travel zone.

His interior minister, Claude Gueant, sounded little different from Le Pen when he recently declared, "We must defend our civilization, because contrary to what the left's relativist ideology says, for us all civilizations are not of the same value."

Until Wednesday, there were those who claimed that presidential rhetoric had given the Toulouse attacker license and inspiration to kill. A Wall Street Journal editorial dubbed him "Nicolas Le Pen."

Now he can wrap himself in statesmanship, call for national unity, and warn against stigmatizing and revenge attacks, and demonstrate his great triumph in the double struggle against terror and anti-Semitism.

Politicians trying to outdo each other

The train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004 took 191 lives and wounded 1,800 people. The deaths of a rabbi and three Jewish children in Toulouse is liable to be etched on the French collective memory in the same measure: France has now launched what it calls the largest internal security operation the country has ever known. Politicians were trying to outdo each other with their militant statements - who would better eradicate anti-Semitism and terror, who would suspend his election campaign and express condolences instead, who would initiate a minute of silence in schools, who would visit the synagogue first, and who would meet the head of the Jewish community first.

Front pages of newspapers were drenched in black, the television networks sent battalions of reporters to cover the breaking story and Internet sites looked as if they were being managed from a war room.

The burning election issues - unemployment, the fate of the euro and the future of nuclear energy - were all shunted aside in favor of the one and only issue. Right, left, Muslims, Christians and Jews - all were as one, linking arms in a rare demonstration of solidarity that extended far beyond the borders of France.

Is this how the world looks when everyone's against us?

French or Israeli?

In July 2004, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon caused a storm in France when he called on French Jewry to "come to Israel as quickly as possible, to escape the anti-Semitism spreading there.

"Israel is the only place where Jews can live Jewish lives in the full sense of the word," he continued, in what was perceived as a slap in the face to President Jacques Chirac and his government.

The man in charge of the French Interior Ministry at the time, and who had made it a central goal of his to fight racism and anti-Semitism, was one Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sharon realized his misstep and worked to placate the French. But there are those who apparently have failed to learn from his error. "Today we have an opportunity to tell French Jews that if they will choose to return to the land of their forefathers, they will find a warm home here," Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom declared on Tuesday.

Remarks like that are grease on the wheels of the anti-Semites and those who would deny Jews in France the right to exist. The same is true of the decision by the victims' families to have them buried in the Jewish state.

Sarkozy, Hollande, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe can declare from Thursday until Friday that "an attack on Jews in France is an attack on the 65 million citizens of the republic."

The Jew-haters are more convinced by what Shalom said.

The secret of Le Pen's success

Marine Le Pen breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday. If the neo-Nazi theory about the attack had proven true, she could have bid au revoir to her presidential campaign.

But now that the attacker has been identified, she can once again declare the death of classic anti-Semitism, and claim that this new version has its source in Islamic immigration.

She can also go back to trying to forge an alliance between Europe's extreme right wing and its Israeli counterpart. Yalla, let's battle Islam. Oh, and also those "scoundrels," her political rivals who "tried to exploit this tragic event" to slander her and her campaign.

There are those who were reminded on Wednesday of the bombing in 1995 at the Saint-Michel metro station in Paris, the worst of a series of terror attacks in France that summer. Those attacks earned the National Front unexpected votes in the partial parliamentary elections that took place only a few weeks afterward.

There were also those who recalled the success of Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who caused a huge sensation in 2002 when he qualified for a runoff presidential election against Chirac. The major reason for his success was that his rivals essentially adopted his agenda, which corresponded with the No. 1 issue in French public opinion at the time: the rising crime and sense of insecurity that were automatically identified with immigration.

Since the central election issue was "his," Le Pen positioned himself as the expert, exploiting to the fullest the "I told you so" tactic and calling on the public to vote for "the one with the original patent, not his pathetic imitators."

From the start of the events in Toulouse, Marine Le Pen has been playing it smart. Her response - suspending her campaign and expressing her empathy with the Jewish community - could have been taken from the center of French republican consensus.

Her ultimate success will depend on her ability to combine her "de-demonization" tactics with her father's old tricks: to persuade voters that if the options are Nicolas or Marine, then once again Le Pen, who has the original patent, is the better choice.

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