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On this day in 2012: Terror in Toulouse halts presidential race
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On this day in 2012: Terror in Toulouse halts presidential race

Presidential campaigns all have their share of emblematic moments that change the course of the race, be they breathtaking instant game-changers or incidents that seem decisive only in hindsight. With French voters set to elect a president in April, FRANCE 24 takes a look back at some of the key moments from campaigns past. In the spotlight: The deadly shooting rampage in Toulouse and Montauban that brought the 2012 presidential campaign to a temporary halt.

With just over a month to go before the first round of France’s 2012 presidential election, a horrific killing spree rocked the country to its core. The first Islamist terrorist attacks on French soil since 1995 brought the race to a standstill, with top candidates taking the unprecedented step of suspending their presidential campaigns. The surreal truce coincided with the dramatic pursuit of a killer and the laying to rest of his seven victims. A photograph of a palette of solemn presidential candidates, left to far right, mourning side-by-side on March 21, 2012, remains stark visual evidence of an unprecedented political hiatus.

The eight-day rampage began that March 11 in a Toulouse parking lot, where an off-duty paratrooper was shot dead by the stranger who had answered his ad offering a motorcycle for sale. Four days later, two more paratroopers were killed and a third paralysed after a bullet through the spine by a man on a scooter hollering “Allahu Akbar!” outside the soldiers’ barracks in neighbouring Montauban. Then on March 19, the same gunman, wearing a GoPro camera as he had for each of his grisly crimes, struck at a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a 30-year-old teacher and rabbi, his two young sons ages 3 and 5, and the headmaster’s daughter, 8, before speeding off on a scooter.

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The manhunt would conclude with a 32-hour standoff at the suspect’s Toulouse apartment. In the end, the Al Qaeda-inspired killer – 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, born in Toulouse to Algerian parents – was shot dead by police on the morning of March 22, a month to the day before the first round of the 2012 presidential vote.

How did the candidates react?The massacre at the Jewish school alone may well have jolted the campaign. But when it was quickly linked to the same killer who had slain the three paratroopers, that attack made clear the scope of the terror befalling the country. Authorities promptly raised the terror alert level to maximum vigilance. The grim escalation of events put candidates at risk of appearing frivolous, oblivious or vulgar in pursuing business as usual. After all, in the 75 hours between the Jewish school attack and Merah’s violent demise, TV news coverage of the manhunt and the standoff was live and non-stop.

President Nicolas Sarkozy naturally travelled to the scene of the school tragedy in his role as head of state. But the conservative incumbent announced he would pause his re-election race until the soldiers were laid to rest two days later. Sarkozy shut down his campaign website, striking it through with a black banner and a brief message.

Socialist Party challenger François Hollande also travelled to Toulouse on the day of the school attack, calling for the whole Republic to come together with a “firm and unified response”. He and Sarkozy, the presidential front-runners, both attended a religious ceremony at the same Paris synagogue that evening, alongside their respective romantic partners. But Hollande cancelled a prime-time TV appearance that night and a campaign rally the next day.

Far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen halted her race, too; as did Greens candidate Eva Joly.

France’s media regulator, which enforces strict rules on the “speaking time” that broadcasters can allot to candidates during a presidential campaign, changed tack as well. The Superior Audiovisual Council announced that, for two days, it would suspend its meticulous stopwatch tally whenever a candidate was discussing the Toulouse and Montauban attacks.

Toulouse shootings: A decade on, locals remember horror of Jewish school attack

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FOCUS © FRANCE 24

Other candidates, however, decided to press on with their races. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for his part, pointedly kept to his campaign schedule. “Pursuing the campaign is an act of moral, intellectual and emotional resistance,” the Front de Gauche (“Left Front”) nominee declared. Referring to Merah, Mélenchon added, “We are not at the mercy of a degenerate. He does not make the rules. He cannot impose his rhythm on us. We will catch him and he will pay.”

Centrist candidate François Bayrou, meanwhile, went ahead with his rally on the night of the anti-Semitic attack – although without the usual peppy campaign music. On stage, Bayrou lamented a society “poisoned by divisions” and railed against politicians he accused of “fanning the flames” when they single people out on ethnic grounds. Bayrou’s remarks rankled Sarkozy’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, who warned against “taking advantage” of the horror. “No politician should be trying to earn political capital from a tragedy that has absolutely nothing to do with the political campaign,” said Juppé, a conservative former prime minister.

Grim precedentsIndeed, in 2012, presidential candidates already had grim precedents from which to draw wisdom. On March 27, 2002, less than a month before a previous presidential election, a gunman killed eight and injured 19 more at a city council meeting in Nanterre outside Paris. The next day, then president Jacques Chirac, running for re-election, appeared to link the grievous attack to crime in general, noting it was one of his fellow citizens’ (read: voters’) top concerns. Chirac’s remarks were promptly deemed crass. Rivals of all stripes were scathing, each accusing the conservative incumbent of hijacking the bloodshed for political gain.

But just three weeks after the Nanterre attack, and just three days before the 2002 election, another sort of assault entered French presidential election lore with a different lesson for candidates. On April 18, 2002, a 72-year-old man who would come to be known as “Grandpa Voise” was found beaten, his home burned down, spurring outrage and massive media coverage.

The assault of 72-year-old Paul ‘Papy’ Voise, shown here on April 20, 2002, grabbed headlines in the final stretch of the 2002 French presidential race. © Alin Jocard, AFP/File

Down the home stretch that year, pollsters had agreed Chirac would win a place in the final duel alongside the Socialist candidate, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Famously, that is not how things turned out. When after the first-round dust had settled, Chirac’s run-off challenger turned out to be far-right rabble-rouser Jean-Marie Le Pen, seen as tougher on crime. Some pundits pointed to the Grandpa Voise affair as a factor in the result. It was a specious theory – a glut of left-wing candidates split the 2002 vote and pollsters had underestimated Le Pen’s true support. But it has stuck ever since as a cautionary tale.

The murky upshot? Don’t be seen as taking advantage of a gory event; but know that rivals might well benefit if you let them.

EpilogueAfter the tenuous truce in the 2012 campaign, the regular business of contesting a presidential election returned with a vengeance. Candidates did accuse one another of exploiting the tragedy. And the first rumours of intelligence flubs on Sarkozy’s watch in the Merah case put the incumbent on the defensive.

On the campaign trail, Sarkozy, who had made his name as a crime-fighting interior minister, blasted “uncontrolled waves of immigration” (despite the fact he’d been in charge for years). He pledged new legislation to crack down on training in terrorist camps abroad and vowed to punish internet users visiting websites deemed to espouse terrorism. Speaking to censorship fears, the far-left candidate Mélenchon responded: “Sarkozy would do well not to give an absurd criminal the gift of transforming every citizen into a suspect.”

Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, in her first bid for president after taking the National Front torch from her father, pursued her campaign seeking to regain the hardline support Sarkozy had pried away from her party five years earlier. She, too, sought to link crime and immigration in the wake of the Toulouse and Montauban killings – even though Merah was born and raised in France.

But in the end, the Socialist Hollande won the 2012 presidential vote. Voters’ top concern back then – indeed, as now – was “purchasing power”, followed by unemployment. Out of 14 voter concerns the BVA firm polled for that spring, security and immigration were far down the list – tied for eighth place – and the Toulouse rampage didn’t change that in the weeks that followed.

As strange as it may seem in hindsight – given the bloody attacks that would leave hundreds dead in Paris and Nice during the second half of Hollande’s five-year term – the terrorist threat was a middling concern in France in 2012. In a poll by the Ifop firm conducted in the immediate wake of the Toulouse and Montauban attacks, on March 22 and 23 of that year, only 53 percent evaluated the terrorist threat in France as “high” – one of the lowest rates since the pollster began asking the question 11 years earlier. “The fact that worry about the threat of terrorism is today at a historically low level leads us to think that, while the tragedy of Montauban and Toulouse left an impression and moved French people, it did not create psychosis about security,” Ifop reported then.

Analysts speaking to FRANCE 24 at the time largely guarded against overstating the French Islamist threat in the wake of the Toulouse and Montauban attacks, a year into Syria’s civil war. But one commentator was prescient in flagging the impact Merah could have going forward. “That’s the danger,” said Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist working for the London-based counter-extremist Quilliam Foundation. “If you’re a French Muslim looking for a war with French society, maybe you will look to Merah as a model.”

As it happened, no other European country would see as many of its young people travel to join the Islamic State group and other extremist factions in Iraq and Syria as France did. One of them was Mehdi Nemmouche, who became the first European veteran of the jihadist fight in Syria to return and stage an attack on European soil in 2014 when he shot four people dead at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killings claimed by IS group. Nemmouche, by all accounts, had expressed an obsessive admiration for Merah. The Toulouse and Montauban killings are also widely seen as a precursor to the 2015 attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo magazine, the Bataclan concert hall and other soft-target venues.

In 2017, Abdelkader Merah, the Toulouse gunman’s elder brother, was sentenced to 20 years in jail when France’s highest court found him guilty of criminal terrorist conspiracy in the murders committed by his late brother. His punishment was raised to 30 years on appeal in 2019. A friend of the Merah brothers, Fettah Malki, was handed a 10-year sentence for associating with known criminals.

French presidential election © France 24

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