Is France begins to come to terms with the aftermath of Mohammed Merah’s horrific killing spree, President Nicolas Sarkozy sounded statesman-like on Thursday when he called on the French to not “give rein to anger”. The French, he said, should not “embark on any stigmatisation” of Muslims.
Of course, one expects the leader of a country to have the qualities of a statesman, particularly if he has been in power for five years. But only a couple of weeks ago Mr Sarkozy was pandering to the worst of populist instincts as the campaigning for presidential elections swung into high gear.
On national television Mr Sarkozy, who is the son of a Hungarian immigrant and married to an Italian, complained that France has “too many foreigners”. This came after he turned halal meat into an election issue by calling for it to be clearly labelled in supermarkets. Surely in a country that has lost its AAA credit rating and faces serious economic challenges, there are more urgent issues for a president to tackle than how meat is slaughtered and sold?
But Mr Sarkozy wants to win when France goes to the polls on April 22 and he needs to ensure he doesn’t lose votes to the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. It may be cheap politics but these are uncivil times in western political discourse.
Only a year ago, the American politician Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by a deranged gunman as she met constituents in Tucson, Arizona. Ms Giffords narrowly survived although she has quit politics. Jared Lee Loughner killed six people that day and the tragedy prompted an agonised debate in America about its polarised politics. Loughner acted alone but there was a sense that he was part of a larger, uglier picture in which American politicians routinely insult each other, sometimes using quite extreme language. Before the attacks, Sarah Palin the former vice-presidential candidate, had spoken of having President Barack Obama in her crosshairs. After the shootings politicians on the left and the right called for a toning down of the sometimes violent rhetoric that fills the television and radio airwaves.
Since then not much has changed. As the US elections gathers pace, the radio host Rush Limbaugh, a powerful figure among Republicans, called a young law student a prostitute because she spoke publicly in support of insurance companies covering contraception. Whatever one’s opinions about contraception, there can be no doubt that describing a woman as a “slut” on a radio show listened to by millions of people is hateful.
These are uncertain times in the West and many are anxious about the future. The American economy continues to splutter and the European debt crisis doesn’t seem to have an end. Greece’s future grows bleaker by the day, and even the middle classes can now be seen lining up at soup kitchens. The young everywhere are disproportionately unemployed. Politicians exploit the public’s fears by pointing to immigrants, Muslims in particular.
No doubt at the beginning of this week many French Muslims shared the hope that the toulouse killer would prove to be a right-wing fanatic as he killed Jews and Muslims. But they will now have to defend themselves and their faith by pointing out that they, too, are victims of Merah since he murdered three soldiers of Arab origin.
Many in Europe and America feel powerless about job losses, austerity budgets, cutbacks in social welfare programmes. They don’t believe their elected leaders can do very much. The vast majority listen to the heated rhetoric from public figures but pay it little attention. But there are a few on whom the words have a worrying impact.
What politicians say does matter. Their language sends signals and their words can have terrible potency. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian maniac who shot dead 77 people last year and was declared criminally insane, once expressed his admiration for the Dutch Party for Freedom. This is hardly some obscure entity but the third largest party in the Netherlands, infamously led by the demagogic Geert Wilders, who once said: “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam.” Ultimately - and despite any inflamed rhetoric from politicians on the stump - Merah, Breivik and Loughner are responsible for their own evil deeds. They are also quite capable of deliberately twisting what is said and done in the public sphere to excuse their own murderous impulses.
Merah is very much a case in point. He is said to have visited Afghanistan twice to train or fight, and claims he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children. He seemed to believe he was at war with Christians and Jews.
As he cold-bloodedly shot a soldier in the head he filmed himself saying: “You kill my brothers, I kill you.” He may have been referring to the Taliban or the Palestinians. (For his part, the Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyed condemned Merah’s attack on the Jewish school which left four dead and said “it is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine”). France has sent soldiers to Afghanistan for a decade and it is up to elected representatives in the national assembly to decide if it is in the national interest to do so. There may even be an urgent need to debate immigration policy, as Mr Sarkozy suggested earlier this month. The Israeli-Palestinian impasse desperately needs a just resolution. These are such important issues they cannot be hijacked by the deranged. The trouble is, few politicians, particularly in an election year, bother to rise above simplistic rhetoric and tackle issues soberly.
Newt Gingrich, the US Republican candidate, earlier this year glibly described the Palestinians as an “invented people”.
This undoubtedly confirmed the suspicion of hardliners that the Americans would never help the Palestinians realise their dream of statehood and that violence is the answer. After Merah was shot dead by a sniper on Thursday following a 32-hour stand-off with police, Ms Le Pen, was claiming that France had “dangerously underestimated the threat of Islamic fundamentalism”.
Merah may have used Islam as justification for his horrific crimes but it was the first act of Islamist terrorism in France for 20 years, which suggests the problem is not as widespread as Ms Le Pen claims. In such a climate unhinged individuals whether they are part of the extreme right such as Loughner or Breivik, or violent Islamists such as Merah, find warm waters in which to swim because they believe they really are at war - as otherwise respectable politicians claim.        –The National