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Mar 22, 2012

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Eight years on, and another European election campaign has been overshadowed by an act of terrorism. In 2004 it was the Madrid train bombings, just three days before the Spanish general election. Now France has felt something of the same shock, with seven people killed in three shootings in the Toulouse area — apparently by Mohammed Merah, currently (at about 1am local time) still under siege in a heavily-armed stand-off with French police.

The first round of the presidential election is still a month away, and campaigning was suspended while France came to terms with the atrocity.

But as the Madrid attacks were seen to be a game changer, delivering an unexpected victory to Spain’s socialist opposition, it’s natural to question whether Toulouse could have a comparable political impact.

Before this week, things were looking bad for incumbent centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy. For months now, polls have consistently shown him well behind Socialist challenger François Hollande in a run-off.

Recent movement has been generally towards Sarkozy — he’s now running neck-and-neck with Hollande in the first round, and the second-round margin has come down from around 58-42 to around 55-45 (Wikipedia summarises the polls) but Hollande remains a strong favorite.

Desperate to turn things around, Sarkozy has been tacking rightwards, appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment and hoping to attract voters from the far-right National Front (more specifically, to ensure that they turn out for him in the second round instead of staying home).

Initial reactions to the Toulouse attacks suggested that this had backfired dramatically, but that was when the gunman was assumed to be driven by nativist sentiments, à la Anders Breivik. Now that he has been revealed to be a French Muslim of Algerian descent and a al-Qa’eda sympathiser, the politics look rather different.

Shades again of Madrid, where what really hurt the government was not the bombings themselves but the clumsy attempt to pin responsibility on Basque separatists, rather than admit the connection with Spain’s participation in the Iraq war. Could Hollande be similarly damaged if the public thinks the warnings of Sarkozy and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen have now been vindicated?

While the right’s prognosis certainly looks better than it did a couple of days ago, the results are unlikely to be so dramatic. For one thing, there’s a full month (plus two more weeks to the runoff) for other issues to return to centre stage. For another, none of the candidates made the mistake of trying to politicise the attacks at the start – all of them have displayed the appropriate degree of dignity, sympathy and outrage. (That hasn’t stopped a spokesman from Sarkozy’s party accusing both Hollande and Le Pen of playing politics.)

For Sarkozy it’s an obvious move, since whatever the politics of the terrorist’s motive, he can hope to get some benefit just by looking presidential.

Madrid notwithstanding, episodes of crisis tend to benefit the incumbent. But it’s not all bad for Hollande either, since his strengths are seen as those of a moderate and a conciliator, a safe pair of hands.

Le Pen will be looking at the issue as her one faint opportunity to break into the second round, as her father famously did in 2002. But the gap seems too big to make up; the polls put her at least ten points behind Hollande and Sarkozy. Centrist François Bayrou, who managed 18.6% in 2007, is well back in fourth place (just ahead of the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon), and after this week it seems France is even less likely to want to hear his message of liberal tolerance.

For the European Left, this is an absolutely vital election; its big chance to get back into the game. If Sarkozy were to somehow manage a comeback, on top of the left’s series of defeats in the last two years, it would be a huge psychological blow.

Odds are that even Islamic terrorism won’t do it for him. But don’t write him off just yet.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson has contributed to Crikey since 2002, and was a ministerial adviser in the Kennett government and a former editorial manager at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

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8 thoughts on “Terrorism upends France’s election

  1. michael r james

    “For the European Left, this is an absolutely vital election; its big chance to get back into the game.”

    Yes, but look at the quality of their leaders! Is Francois Hollande the best they can do? I haven’t heard a single policy from him that had any meat. Just spouting old and tired socialist stuff that every French person knows they cannot afford any more. Voting for him will be triumph of hope over experience; in fact everyone will be saying, ok another 5 years of status quo, and then maybe we can try to solve the problems later!

    I certainly wouldn’t discount the likelihood of a Sarkozy comeback–even if one believed these polls. (In a two stage system I wonder if it means a lot. IMO if Marine LePen picks up, that eventually will scare many potential Hollande voters back to Sarko in the first stage and then carry over to the second.) I am not a fan of Sarko but at the same time–probably like quite a lot of French–more of the same is not going to do the job. In some ways it has been bad luck for him to come to office just as the global sh!t hit the fan, and worse, the Euro crisis happened (true, it was bound to happen before long).

    Incumbency is even more powerful in France so I am betting that they will give him a second chance. His performance during the Euro crisis, nevermind Anglo commentators (alas including Rundle), has been creditable, and in fact proven correct. (The French long ago accepted that the price of a stable and prosperous Europe was acceding to the Germans on a lot of things, so I don’t think they will hold it against Sarko). God knows, any leader has limited options under the present circumstances but there seems zero probability of Hollande doing anything meaningful while there remains a little hope that Sarko might.

  2. michael r james

    I can’t believe I am posting opinion poll results! But here from Guardian a few minutes ago:

    [5.39am: The Mera case may have produced a bounce in the polls for Nicolas Sarkozy as a presidential elections approach. Reuters has this:

    The first opinion poll since a gunman shot dead four people at a Jewish school on Monday showed President Nicolas Sarkozy would narrowly beat his Socialist challenger in the first round of a presidential election next month.

    Sarkozy and Francois Hollande suspended their campaigns after three children and a rabbi were shot dead at the school in Toulouse in south-west France, killings that followed the shooting of three soldiers earlier this month.

    A CSA poll conducted on Monday and Tuesday showed Sarkozy would win 30% in the first round and Hollande 28%, whereas the two rivals had been neck-and-neck a week ago. Despite Sarkozy’s lead in the first round, the poll showed that Hollande was still ahead by eight percentage points in a second-round run-off on 6 May, unchanged from a week ago.

    While Hollande has so far enjoyed a large lead over Sarkozy whose economic record and showy style left many voters dissatisfied, Sarkozy’s response to Monday’s shootings has improved his image.]

    What I do not understand about these figures for the second round, is how Sarko can win the first but lose the second. In the first round Le Pen would win a significant number of votes (and this too should probably go up due to these killings) but surely in the second round a lot of them would flow to Sarko? (The main fear of Sarkoists is that LePen voters will simply not show up for the second stage.)

  3. Charles Richardson

    @Michael: Thanks for that, & sorry about the delay in moderation (not my responsibility). Looking at that CSA poll ( http://www.csa.eu/multimedia/data/sondages/data2012/opi20120320-la-course-2012-vague-19-mars-2012.pdf ), while Sarkozy is ahead of Hollande in the first round, the next three – Le Pen, Bayrou & Mélenchon – are about equal on 13%. Since Le Pen’s are the most likely to just stay home & Bayrou’s voters will probably lean towards Hollande, that still equates to a clear Hollande win. What seems to have been happening is that Sarkozy is gaining at the expense of Le Pen & Mélenchon is gaining at the expense of Hollande, but that should all wash out in the second round. But clearly the full effect of the last week’s events won’t have been felt yet, so it’ll be interesting to see what the next few say.

    @AR: Yes, I think that’s pretty much it. Yet it seems to work for them. I’d certainly rather live in France than in Germany or the UK.

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