Fear and Voting in La France

The attack at the Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse this week will certainly influence the political arena, but it's hard to say just how yet.

The first was Marine Le Pen. Shortly after the police began their shoot-out with the suspected terrorist in a placid Toulouse neighborhood early Wednesday morning, the far-right candidate breathlessly announced that "the danger posed by fundamentalism has not been seriously addressed." Le Pen, who was on the defensive after early, erroneous reports alleged that French neo-Nazis were behind the murders of three Jewish children, their teacher and three French soldiers, was trying to gain any possible political capital from the tragedy.

Just a few days ago, Le Pen seemed to be losing ground in public opinion polls in relation to the two main presidential hopefuls, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. She is hoping to recover and finish at least third, with at least 16 percent of the vote. If she does so, she will come close to matching her father's success 10 years ago, when the elder Le Pen shocked France by making it into the second round of balloting by taking 18 percent of the vote (before ultimately losing to Jacques Chirac ).

Sarkozy at the memorial ceremony for the three paratroopers killed by the terrorist last week.

For Marine Le Pen, the terror attack this week could be a campaign cornerstone. But this applies to other candidates, too.

This is a period of national grief and fear in France, but it is also election season. The massacre at the Otzar Hatorah Jewish school came a month before the first round of presidential balloting, which is scheduled for April 22. The campaign had been dramatic even before the terror attack, and the incident has heightened interest in the election. Politicians didn't keep mum even while policemen were still exchanging fire with the suspect. They managed to keep their mouths shut for only 48 hours.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the rising star on the far left (with 11 percent in the polls ), called his decision to continue campaigning a "kind of resistance" to the brutal murders. Even the cool, collected centrist candidate Francois Bayrou (13 percent ) held an election rally on Monday evening, hours after the murders. He bluntly attacked Sarkozy, although not by name, demanding a "unifying, not divisive" government policy. Thus he hinted that the president has been veering rightward over the past few weeks and thus bears responsibility for the extremist turn in French discourse.

The one person who remained stoic in the face of these declarations, at least at the time of writing, was Sarkozy himself, who is trailing in the opinion polls. Sarkozy is busy dealing with affairs of state rather than personal interests, as French citizens prefer their citizen No. 1 do. The attacks and their fallout let him project an image of dignified responsibility. At Wednesday's memorial service for the three soldiers, he stood in front of the flag-draped coffins looking grim. He projected the right image and said the right things. "We must stay united," he declared. The other candidates at the ceremony watched Sarkozy's performance from the first row.

As he has proven, Sarkozy is a wizard at crisis management. In 1993, when he was a young, promising mayor in the wealthy Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine, he personally intervened in a nursery school hostage affair. He showed courage in front of the cameras, and even received a badge of honor from the police. Commentators would later state that this was a decisive event in the formation of his public image. Now, Sarkozy is again coming across as a deft crisis manager, as "France's national policeman." After all, as interior minister, he declared war on criminals and improved the sense of security in the country's largest cities.

Though his standing in the polls has improved since he restarted his campaign, he continues to lag well behind leftist candidate Hollande. A poll conducted before the attacks forecast that each one would win about 28 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting, but that Hollande would beat Sarkozy by 8 percent to 10 percent in the second round.

Until now, Hollande's tactic was to do little while projecting a presidential demeanor. Sarkozy had conducted an aggressive campaign, relentlessly attacking him. But since the school shooting on Monday, Sarkozy has taken on a reserved presidential manner. Hollande, who also responded in a reserved, dignified way to the attacks, will now apparently have to launch a more aggressive campaign and focus the discussion on matters other than security, a field where he lacks personal experience.

"The war on terror must continue without interruption, and without any display of weakness," Hollande quickly declared after the shooter's identity was publicized. He seemed to be trying to say, "I also know how to defend the state."

All those forecasting that the terror attacks will give the right an easy victory should take a look at what happened in Spain several years ago. On March 11, 2004, three days before the Spanish general elections, a series of bombs killed 191 people in several Madrid train stations. Aides to the incumbent prime minister, the conservative Jose Maria Aznar, hinted that the Basque underground was behind the attacks, even though they bore a distinct Islamist fingerprint.

At a mass rally for the terror victims the following day, Anzar was greeted with jeers. I was there. For an Israeli, it was strange to see a crowd jeering a right-wing prime minister at a memorial service following a terror attack by Islamic extremists. There were no calls for revenge or "death to the murderers"; instead, mourners demanded that the event not be exploited for political capital. It was clear that Aznar's right-wing faction would lose, and that the socialist candidate Jose Luis Zapatero would profit.

In that instance, an Islamic terror attack tilted the election to the left, which is the opposite of what usually happens in Israel. France is not Spain, but it's not Israel, either. The attack at the Toulouse school this week will certainly influence the political arena, but it's hard to say just how yet. Will France's public move to the right, and if so, will Le Pen or Sarkozy benefit? Until now, Sarkozy had sought to guarantee that Le Pen's extremist right-wing supporters would back him during the second round of balloting. Without them, he has no chance of winning a second term. The only thing that is clear right now is that seven dramatic weeks are in store for France, and that elections are not going to be calm and elegant.