Media, World

The French messenger of mayhem and destruction linked to al-Qaeda

The French messenger of mayhem and destruction linked to al-Qaeda

French police have tracked down the “scooter killer” – supposedly a rightwing crackpot they and the media blamed for “racist” killings in southern France that left seven people dead in the last week. As alleged links to al-Qaeda emerge, the story is likely to have the opposite political effect. By REBECCA DAVIS.

At first it seemed the story was clear. A lone gunman, travelling by scooter, was targeting minorities in the area around Toulouse. The first, on 11 March, was an army sergeant of North African origin, Imad Ibn-Ziaten. He had previously placed an advert to sell his motorcycle on the Le Bon Coin website. Having been contacted by an individual expressing interest, he arranged to meet the prospective buyer in front of a gymnasium. But instead of selling his motorbike, he was shot in the head at point blank range by a man on a scooter when he arrived at the meeting point.

Four days later, the gunman struck again. This time he targeted three uniformed paratroopers queuing for a cash machine in a town 60km from Toulouse. Two, originally North African, died instantly. The third, taken to hospital, was of Caribbean descent. Once again, the gunman arrived and left by scooter.

These first two incidents, though horrifying, were overshadowed by the third. On 19 March the gunman arrived at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish School in north east Toulouse, and opened fire seemingly indiscriminately. Four people, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, his two sons Gabriel, 3, and Arieh, 6, and Miriam Monsonego, 8, the daughter of the school’s headmaster, died.

In response, French President Nicolas Sarkozy articulated what seemed self-evident at the time: the killings were motivated by racism. “Of course, by attacking children, Jews, the anti-Semitic motivation seems obvious,” Sarkozy said. “We don’t know what the motives are, even if one can think, one can imagine that racism and murderous folly are linked.”

The media’s reasoning quickly concurred. “All of those who have been shot or killed in and around the city in the past eight days have had one thing in common,” wrote Guardian columnist Fiachra Gibbons. “They are from visible minorities. They had names or faces that marked them out as not being descended, as Jean-Marie Le Pen would say, from ‘our ancestors the Gauls’. Their roots – both Jewish and Muslim – were in the Maghreb or the Caribbean.”

One reason why this version became the accepted wisdom was because of the resurgence of xenophobia, racism and sexism in France in the past decade. Earlier this month French Socialist politician Arnaud Montebourg said he and his partner were surrounded by a group of around 15 men who yelled “Juden” at them as they left a restaurant. The word “Juden” (Jew) is German rather than French, and as such was a marked choice: it carries particular heft in racist terminology because of its association with the Nazis. The men who verbally assaulted Montebourg also shouted “Le Pen for president”, a reference to the leader of the far-right National Front (FN) party, Marine Le Pen.

Since Marine Le Pen took over the party leadership from her father, Jean-Marie, a year ago, she has attempted to steer the party away from the stench of racism. Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front in 1972. He ran in the 1974 presidential election, gaining only 0.74% of the vote. By 2002, however, he did well enough to displace the left candidate, Lionel Jospin, and come second. Le Pen was fined €10,000 in 2005 for inciting racial hatred via disparaging comments about Muslims. But Muslims weren’t his only target. He has also said HIV-positive people should be isolated from society, has expressed doubts about the scale and size of Holocaust gas chambers and criticised the French national football team for containing too many black players.

His daughter has taken a somewhat different route, soft-pedalling the bigotry and highlighting campaigns against free trade and the EU, though the party is still vociferously anti-immigration. To signal the shift in direction, Le Pen has even made overtures to the Jewish population in France. Last year she posed for a photograph with Israel’s ambassador to the UN, for instance. University of Houston’s Robert Zaretsky suggested at the time that the French Jewish community might be shifting rightwards due to growing anti-immigrant sentiment and, unimaginable as it might have seemed a decade ago, for some French Jews the National Front may now be a plausible vote.

Le Pen’s approach seems successful. A poll in January found almost one-third of French voters now support the principles of the National Front. This is the highest since 1991, and means the April elections – long billed as a two-horse show between Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist rival Francois Hollande – might be an interesting prospect.

In response to the National Front’s growing power, Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to poach votes, which necessarily involves steering his own party further to the right. He has stepped up anti-immigrant rhetoric significantly. In a TV debate show at the beginning of March he stated “our system of integration is working increasingly badly, because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school.” Last month he appeared to be deliberately stoking the fires of Islamophobia when he claimed non-Muslims in Paris were being unsuspectingly sold halaal meat. His prime minister, Francois Fillon, then jumped on the bandwagon to suggest that Jews and Muslims should abandon kosher and halaal practices altogether because they “don’t have much in common with today’s state of science, technology and health problems”. Last week Sarkozy’s immigration chief Arno Klarsfeld suggested a wall be built between Greece and Turkey to protect Europe from Turkish invaders.

All in all, there’s been a lot of xenophobic sentiment in the French public discourse of late. Which is precisely why liberal media were so quick to seize upon the Toulouse shootings as evidence that things had gone too far. “Today in Toulouse we have been given a horrific illustration of where such delirious cynicism can lead,” Fiachra Gibbons wrote for The Guardian. You reap what you sow, was the underlying idea. French politicians have spent months fomenting hatred and divisiveness, and this was the culmination. The suspect was presented as a figure much like Norwegian gunman Anders Breivik, a fanatical rightwinger on a crusade to save Europe. It was, clearly, a gift for the left wing. In the wake of the Jewish school shooting Socialist candidate Francois Hollande spoke out against the dangers of “words that influence”, a statement widely interpreted as a criticism of the current right-wing rhetoric. It was bad news for Sarkozy and Le Pen, both of whom were expected to radically temper their language on race and immigration in response to the killings.

But there’s just one problem. Now that they’ve tracked down the Toulouse gunman, he turns out not to be some crazy racist skinhead at all. He turns out to be Mohammed Merah, 23, a “French national of North African origin”, allegedly Taliban-trained and on a mission to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children. This leaves media outlets like The Guardian with more than a little egg on their faces in their haste to pin the racist neo-Nazi tail on the scooter killer.

As the Financial Times pointed out, one irony was that when news broke of Breivik’s rampage last year, initial reactions were that al Qaeda was behind it. Of course, it turned out to be a lone rightwing madman. This time, it looks like the other way round.

Naturally, this is like manna from heaven for Marine Le Pen in particular. When news of Mareh’s identity broke she immediately released a statement saying: “We have minimised the rise of radical Islam in this country… we did not want to look it in the face.” France, she said, must wage war against “these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children.” The National Front is now certain to push their claim that the project of cultural assimilation for immigrants has failed in the country, and anti-Muslim declarations are sure to circulate freely. In response, the BBC suggests that the Socialist party will try to shift attention to issues like taxation and the economy, which have less visceral appeal than the gunning down of children.

Ultimately, commentators are suggesting this episode may not have a drastic effect on the election’s outcome, because issues relating to immigration were already centre stage. But certainly both Le Pen and Sarkozy look likely to benefit by capitalising on public fears around terrorism and using this as a justification to push more stringent immigration laws. The lesson for the media from the Toulouse shootings, meanwhile, is to wait for concrete evidence before ascribing responsibility for violence. DM

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Photo: People carry the body of seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego during a joint funeral in Jerusalem for her and three other victims of Monday’s shooting in Toulouse. Three children, one of them Monsonego, and a rabbi shot dead at a Jewish school in France were buried in Jerusalem on Wednesday, the victims of what an Israeli politician said were murders inspired by “wild animals made crazy by their hatred” of Jews. REUTERS/Nir Elias.


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