Ironically, those hopes may have been reignited by a tragedy. The murders of four Jews – three of them children – in Toulouse has changed the whole dynamic of the campaign. As events unfolded, it emerged that the shooter was the same person responsible for killing three soldiers the week before. Speculation was rife that the murderer was associated with the far-right, France’s answer to Norway’s Anders Breivik. A couple of candidates even dared to point fingers directly at Marine le Pen, accusing her of stoking racial hatred with her inflammatory comments about ritual slaughter, halal meat, prayer on the streets and the like. Now it has emerged that the man responsible for these horrible crimes is a radical Islamist of Algerian descent, who has received training from Al-Qaeda. With this information, the game changes. Henceforth, the political agenda is likely to swing to the right, with national security, terrorism, law and order, and anti-Islamism back on the menu in a major way. These issues will all play to the advantage of the right.
In 2002, the agenda was dominated by similar issues, coming only a few months after 9/11. The result was the surprise qualification of far-right candidate Jean Marie le Pen to the second round of the election, and the re-election of Jacques Chirac. Since then, the economy has loomed large in the public consciousness, while security issues have died down. The poor state of the global economy has led to the eviction of many political incumbents over the past four years, and Sarkozy looked set to be the latest victim. Shifting the agenda away from the economy and back onto security issues is therefore a political gift for him. However, he is aware that he needs to play this one carefully. Trying to make political gains out of human suffering is always a faux pas. The terrorist attacks on Spain in 2004, which also came shortly before an election, resulted in the surprise victory of the left after criticism of how the news was handled by the right-wing government.
So Sarkozy’s strategy has been to tread very cautiously. He has taken off his candidate hat for three days, and put back on the hat of the president. He has studiously avoided doing anything that could be construed as campaigning. Instead, he has been solemn and dignified, the leader uniting the country in their hour of grief, speaking out against violence and rallying his people. It is a smart and effective strategy. Hollande has had little choice but to follow Sarkozy’s lead, attending funerals and similar events by Sarkozy’s side. But whereas Sarkozy can act in his official capacity as president, Hollande is only a candidate, and therefore is less well placed to separate his presence at such events from his campaign. He also looks like the junior partner, with Sarkozy enjoying the stature and gravitas that only an incumbent president can have.
Sarkozy’s efforts to remove himself from the fray have been ably assisted by Marine le Pen. Her party initially went very quiet, as rumours circulated of a far-right fanatic that would have cast her own party in a bad light. Now that the true identity of the gunman has been revealed, she has pulled no punches. She has attacked all those who jumped to conclusions and pointed fingers at the far-right, and has resumed (with vigour) her attacks on Islamic extremism. She has also renewed her calls to reinstate the death penalty. Her bullish populism is unsurprising, given the unprecedented opportunity to refocus the political agenda onto all her party’s pet issues. She has nothing to lose and might as well make the most of the chance to score political points. Meanwhile, Sarkozy can rise above the populism of le Pen, safe in the knowledge that she is helping to steer the campaign onto turf that will favour them both, without tarnishing him with the brush of opportunism.
So who will win and lose in the new political order? Le Pen is likely to win, with an increased vote share in the first round, but she is still unlikely to qualify to the second round. Sarkozy is also likely to win, as more of le Pen’s votes might now transfer to Sarkozy in the second round. In times of crisis, uncertainty and insecurity, people like candidates on the right, and they like the devil that they know. Meanwhile, Hollande is likely to lose out. The shift in the agenda will not be to his benefit, and the momentum is likely to swing further in his rival’s favour. The centrist candidate, François Bayrou, is likely to be the biggest loser of all. He was too quick to point the finger at the FN, and will now be forced to eat some humble pie. His accusations came on the same day that the murders were announced, so he suffered the double indignity of reacting too quickly, and getting it wrong. Sarkozy’s policy of dignified silence, interspersed with soundbites of sorrow and national resilience, was a much better strategy.
While the shift in agenda may not be sufficient to change the outcome of the election, I would not rule out a comeback for Sarkozy. The result is certainly likely to be closer as a consequence of the events of Toulouse. For anyone who had hoped that these racially motivated murders would force a decline in the racist undertones of the long campaign, there appears to be plenty more disappointment in store.