Looking solemn in front of the coffins of the three soldiers killed last week in Montauban and Toulouse, French President Nicolas Sarkozy invoked “the imperative need for national unity in the face of cold-blooded savagery.” The words resonated in the courtyard of the 17th parachutist regiment. Next to the families and the soldiers, five presidential candidates were present. Some of them, like François Hollande, had suspended their campaigns. Others, like François Bayrou, didn’t. Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, was also there.
“Under no circumstances should we give in to discrimination,” Sarkozy said at the end of this speech. “France cannot be great unless it is united. We owe that to the victims.”
That moment, laden with gravity, was not soiled by any obvious missteps on the part of either Sarkozy or his rivals. In the coming days and weeks, however, things are likely to become a lot trickier for the candidates. Now with the death Thursday of the presumed killer – an allegedly homegrown Salafist radical who is also suspected of shooting three children and a rabbi Monday in front of a Toulouse Jewish school – the race for the presidency will recommence in full force. Only this time the candidates are at much greater risk of committing blunders that could have unpredictable political consequences.
Marine Le Pen started to move her pawns on Wednesday, talking about “an underestimated risk of fundamentalism” and the “war” that had to be fought against “politico-religious fundamentalist groups.” She seemed close to sounding off again on “Islamization,” one of her favorite themes, which we have already seen in her criticism about the lack of labelling of halal meat. Le Pen’s other big issues are immigration and crime.
The other candidates, therefore, have an even greater responsibility now to prevent the campaign from turning towards the stigmatization of one community, a community that is already frequently sidelined and discriminated against. They must stay focused instead on subjects that are important to France, like economic growth and employment.
For the time being, Nicolas Sarkozy is fulfilling his role as the country’s leader. His chief rival, François Hollande, remains dignified. But with a month before the first round of elections, they are still at risk of making false steps could have serious consequences. Faced with this danger, there is only one defense: to elevate the tone of the debate.
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