PARIS, March 26 — A spate of shootings by an Islamist gunman looked at first sight like the kind of shock event that campaign managers thought might help French President Nicolas Sarkozy secure a second term in an April-May election.
But as the dust settles on the Toulouse killings, with the lone gunman dead and his brother in custody as the sole alleged accomplice, last week’s drama seems unlikely to prove an electoral game-changer, opinion polls and experts suggest.
At his strongest handling a crisis, Sarkozy has nudged higher in voter surveys after he oversaw the police manhunt that cornered and killed Mohamed Merah, 23, a Frenchman of Algerian origin.
But his modest gains have given him at most a two-point lead over Socialist Francois Hollande in latest polls for the April 22 first round and have failed to break his challenger’s lead of 8 points or more in the May 6 runoff.
With praise for Sarkozy’s crisis management giving way to criticism of the intelligence services, the Toulouse attacks seem unlikely to have been a turning point uniting a grieving nation behind the president and transforming his prospects.
“Sarkozy has gained 1 to 1.5 points when he would have been expecting more like 3 points, so there is some disappointment in his team. We cannot be absolutely sure he has benefitted from the Toulouse events,” political analyst Roland Cayrol said.
Cayrol said Sarkozy’s rise also coincided with centre-right rival Dominique de Villepin quitting the election race.
“(The Toulouse events) are colouring the campaign, but already less today than in the immediate aftermath and, in my opinion, it will do so less and less. Economic and social fundamentals will come back to the forefront,” he said.
Two out of three polls taken since last Monday’s shooting of a rabbi and three Jewish children at a religious school have shown Sarkozy narrowly ahead of Hollande on the first round. The third put the Socialist still ahead by a narrower margin.
Surprisingly, that poll also showed far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has used the Toulouse attacks to fuel her attacks on Islamists and immigration, losing ground and hardline leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon rising to third place.
The killing of the “lone wolf” Merah by police after a long siege has also removed a security threat that might have buoyed Sarkozy had the gunman remained at large.
The government’s assurance that he was not part of any wider network has reduced fears of further attacks on the public.
Instead, relief at Merah’s death is giving way to criticism of how a man known to have had an interest in radical Islam and who travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan could have been left to amass a stash of guns and carry out three separate killings.
Within 24 hours of his death, the government was having to fend off accusations of intelligence lapses, as opposition politicians suggested that negligence or errors had helped the gunman put his plans into action.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe seemed to acknowledge there were grounds to question security flaws, saying that clarity was needed.
“Even Juppe recognised there were failures so straight away there are big doubts about efficiency in this affair,” political analyst Dominique Reynie said.
Greens election candidate Eva Joly called for the heads of police and intelligence servies to resign for not having seen the danger earlier.
Centrist Francois Bayrou told a campaign rally: “France must ask itself questions when a killer who is on the radar screen of the intelligence services can go on the rampage.”
Rebuffing conservative charges that the Socialists were soft on terrorism, Hollande questioned the president’s own security record, notably in Corsica.
Voters see low terror risk
As Sarkozy’s low popularity ratings and anger over economic gloom kept him stuck behind Hollande in polls for months, campaign advisors on both sides had muttered that it could take some sudden crisis or new euro zone turmoil to save him.
The Toulouse siege revived memories of a 1993 episode in which Sarkozy, then mayor of a Paris suburb, strode into a nursery school where a class was being held hostage by a gunman strapped with explosives, negotiated for the release of some children and emerged carrying a child in his arms.
Police later shot dead the gunman and freed the remaining children, leaving Sarkozy with the status of a national hero.
A TNS-Sofres-Mediaprism opinion poll carried out after Merah was killed on Thursday found 71 per cent of respondents thought Sarkozy had handled the Toulouse crisis well. But 41 per cent of respondents thought he had tried to exploit the events for his campaign, although 48 per cent did not believe so.
Despite the drama, the issues voters list as their top concerns remain unchanged: unemployment, purchasing power, pensions, health reform and public debt, followed at a distance by immigration and national security.
While Sarkozy has an interest in prolonging the security focus, the campaign “should return to first-order concerns such as unemployment and purchasing power,” said Gael Sliman, deputy director of polling agency BVA.
An Ifop poll published on Saturday found 53 per cent of respondents see a high risk of a terrorist attack in France, lower than a peak of 78 per cent following Osama Bin Laden‘s death in May 2011 and 64 per cent after the September 11, 2001 suicide airliner attacks on the United States.
Sarkozy has consolidated his conservative base by veering to the right with a promise to clamp down on immigration. Polls show 75 per cent of past supporters will vote for him again, up from fewer than 60 percent before he launched his campaign in mid-February.
Yet, for those on the fence, analysts sense a high level of cynicism and reluctance to give the president too much credit.
“The public have become experts in communication. They are constantly looking at politics and asking themselves: what are they up to, are they trying to lay one on us?” Cayrol said. — Reuters