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The politics of interpreting Toulouse

The use of anti-Semitism as the main narrative for “Toulouse” led to an internationalising step in the depiction of these events, as commentators increasingly linked the attacks to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Comments then focused on the alleged responsibility of “Israel” or “Muslims” in Merah’s killings.
Brigitte Beauzamy
30 April 2012

As the shock of Marine Le Pen’s excellent presidential results dissipates, and the focus turns to Nicolas Sarkozy’s clear attempts at tapping into her electorate, the traumatic Toulouse events seem to have moved down the media and political agenda. Immediately after the attacks and the subsequent death of Mohammed Merah, all presidential candidates took time out from the normal course of their campaigns to express their distress and support for the victims’ families. However, right from the start, once the hypothesis of a radical right lone wolf had been discarded, statements issued by various presidential candidates and their supports indicated a diversity of interpretations.

Some, like Green candidate Eva Joly, opted for sticking to a neutral expression of sympathy, or, like socialist François Hollande or centre-right François Bayrou, called for a renewed unity of the French around the values of the Republic. Yet political cleavages quickly made their way into the exchange once the candidates began to demonstrate how key measures from their programmes could have helped to prevent these events. Marine Le Pen seized the opportunity to blame immigration and Islam, while right-wing sovereignist candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan blamed insecurity and arms trafficking. As a president-candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy had the opportunity to unfurl a more diverse palette of reactions as he monitored the police investigations: after an initial moment during which he argued in favour of increased surveillance of both Jewish and Muslim schools and places of worship, he switched to a call for a better cyberpolicing of radical Islamist websites.

The left seemed distinctly more ill-at-ease with the politicization of the events and shifted the debate to other, more familiar, topics. François Hollande’s campaign director, Pierre Moscovici, stated that “it was a most important affair (…) however I feel that the French now wish that [the campaign] would care more about them” – suggesting that such exceptional events hardly fitted into their priorities for this presidential election. The extreme-left even went so far as to refuse to turn the killings into a political theme: Trotskyite candidate Nathalie Artaud denounced the “comedy” of the calls for national unity while Front de Gauche (former Communist) Jean-Luc Mélenchon purposefully refused to interrupt his campaign after the attacks and even called a large rally at the Toulouse Capitole on April 5, somewhat cryptically compared to a new “taking of the Bastille”. The Toulouse moment seemed to end with mutual accusations of political recuperation when François Hollande denounced Nicolas Sarkozy’s inefficient security policies, while the president ranted against the socialist refusal to vote in his new security laws during his mandate.

Why did Toulouse disappear relatively quickly from French debates? The events resisted easy interpretation and in fact political recuperation. The long hours when Mohammed Merah was encircled and finally killed were when the dominant interpretation of the attacks bedded down, which saw them as belonging to a global jihadist scheme. Claude Guéant, then Ministry of the Interior, was particularly active in diffusing information about the killer’s association with Al Qaida and his radicalization process in Pakistan and Afghanistan where it was initially – and wrongly – supposed that he had already taken part in violent political actions. Comparisons to 9/11 advanced this interpretation of Merah’s acts as part of a global terrorist trend.

However, after a while two contradictory readings of Merah started to appear. One saw him more like an isolated killer, fitting the loose category of an Islamist “lone wolf” acting on his own without direct ties to a terrorist masterplan. The other put him at the centre of a political conspiracy to facilitate Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-election, as persistant rumours circled long after the event. This was accompanied by equally contradictory versions of the killer’s biography – he was alternatively depicted as a hedonist, a fun-loving “punk”, or a devout Muslim. These paradoxical interpretations of his political objectives, often mirrored widespread ignorance of the political principles underlying Islamist direct action: for instance in its minute-by-minute coverage of the event, RTL first announced that Merah had been inducted by AQMI to carry out a suicide mission in France, then published a “reminder that suicide is ‘forbidden’ in the Muslim faith”. Merah’s motivations remained obscure in all this and his death during the RAID operation prevented him from offering the kind of explanation that Anders Breivik has taken such full advantage of in his lengthy manifesto. This silence opened a void in which contradictory interpretations could thrive.

Toulouse vs. Montauban?

If the focus on the ongoing presidential election has contributed to overshadowing the Toulouse events in party political debates, quarrels are still raging in the French blogosphere and among various minority political actors. Dazzlingly diverse narratives – from the psychoanalytic to the astrological – reveal cleavages which confirm what ‘the Merah case’ has now come to be about: contemporary forms of French anti-Semitism. This dimension is no doubt inescapable, given the choice of target - a Jewish school where three children and one adult were murdered, as well as the connection allegedly drawn by the killer between his act and the Israel/Palestine conflict. However, other justifications were issued and circulated by the same source – the Ministry of the Interior and Claude Guéant himself - to the effect that the first two attacks – on March 11 in Toulouse and March 15 in Montauban, when Merah respectively killed one and two soldiers – were motivated by a wish to retaliate against the participation of the French in the military intervention in Afghanistan. Actually Claude Guéant stated that the decision to target a Jewish school was an afterthought, but that Merah had intended to strike again against the military. As French politicians and foreign commentators focused mainly on the horrendous school killings the anti-Semitic narrative rapidly took over the anti-army one, despite hearsay to the effect that Merah’s own attempts to join the army had failed on several occasions. A third interpretation focusing on racism and ethnic relations was seldom explored, despite the fact that all three military victims belonged to “visible minorities” – an aspect almost impossible to articulate in France where discussions of ethnicity are notoriously embarrassed. Two were described by Nicolas Sarkozy as “of Muslim faith” – understood as Arabs – while a third victim was “Antillean”, e.g. Black.

Nevertheless the toponym of the “Toulouse events” became increasingly equated with the murdered Jewish children, while the Montauban victims disappeared into the background – not to mention the first one, also in Toulouse. This switch in interpretations can be traced back to the very active mobilization of Jewish civil society organizations which organized several rallies to mourn the dead and fulminate against the prevailing danger of anti-Semitism in France, in which most presidential candidates participated. While other communities issued declarations – for instance Muslim leaders denounced the attacks from the outset – they did so in a more discreet fashion and could not boast the same expertise in massively and efficiently organizing against hate crimes that Jewish organizations have unfortunately accrued from previous infamous cases of anti-Semitic violence.

The use of anti-Semitism as the main narrative for “Toulouse” led to a further internationalising step in the depiction of these events, as commentators increasingly linked the attacks to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Links between the Toulouse school victims and Israel seemed obvious when their mourning ceremony was held in Jerusalem. Radical post-colonial political organizations such as the Parti des Indigènes de la République (Party of the Republic’s Indigenous – a reference to the colonial terminology noticeably applied to Muslim Algerians), which has been most active in importing theories of “decoloniality” in France, reframed Merah’s acts as the result of a global imperialist oppression against Muslims, in which Israel was a leading participant. This argument took off very quickly, and comments then focused on the alleged responsibility of “Israel” or “Muslims” in Merah’s killings. In an interesting turn of events, radical right commentators were active on both sides.

Self-proclaimed friends of Mohammed Merah told journalists that, “he was a pure product of France”. Indeed he hardly fitted the imaginary of the transnational terrorist carrying out the plans of high-ranking Al Qaida strategists. His connections with Palestinian political actors were even less palpable, although a trip he had taken to Israel led to wild speculation – including a rumour that close friends of Nicolas Sarkozy had personally intervened to secure his safe entry into Israel. Yet depicting Merah’s acts as somewhat related to the Israel/Palestine conflict achieved, alongside this internationalization of the events, the drawing of a veil over how this all fitted into French colonial and post-colonial history, and exactly which issues it conjured up concerning ethnic relations in multicultural France. It also served as a distraction from the specific question of how the French post-colonial migrant background relates to the most Republican of institutions, the army.

In his classic account of French anarchist violent direct action at the end the XIXth century, Uri Eisenzweig examines the principles behind the doctrine of “propaganda by the deed”: in a context where the relevant public, the working class, were considered too oppressed to relate to elaborated ideological discourses theorizing their struggle, the terrorist act was meant to convey a clear, transparent political message. However, the message spelt out by this succession of events was anything but clear. The attack indeed opened a void in which a virtually unlimited array of commentators could appropriate the action for their own purposes. The proliferation of discourses ensured that the interpretation of the event escaped out of the control of its perpetrator and crystallized around any topical issues it could find. Indeed, no matter what Merah intended to achieve, interpretations of the Toulouse events have disclosed the main cleavages in contemporary French political discourse, while circling around the obsession with anti-Semitism, before pointing as well to various elements that the French would clearly rather not think about at all.

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