The political exploitation of the Toulouse killings revealed Sarkozy’s rivals as contemptibly opportunist

President Sarkozy, left, and his Socialist challenger François Hollande meet at a fundraiser last month (PA photo)

Now it has emerged that the Toulouse serial killer — who murdered first three French Muslim soldiers of Maghrebin origin and then a rabbi and three Jewish children — is not a white right-wing neo-Nazi supporter of Marine Le Pen or even President Sarkozy but a jihadist claiming affiliation with al-Qaeda, there are some on the French Left who ought to feel distinctly embarrassed. They had assumed, and publicly stated, that the current debate on immigration in France lay behind the killings, had somehow, in the mind of the killer, given him permission to kill three Muslims and four Jews. François Bayrou, a centrist candidate, and François Hollande, the socialist presidential candidate, ought surely, in particular, to be ashamed of themselves: both went as near as they could to implying that President Sarkozy was personally responsible for these terrible deaths. This is how the New York Times correspondent reported M Bayrou, with barely concealed approval of his analysis: the debate in France, he preposterously opined, is similar to that in Norway after Anders Behring Breivik killed dozens of young campers in cold blood in July: was his killing spree encouraged in some way, asked the NYT reporter, by too harsh a debate in Norway about immigrants and foreigners?

François Bayrou, a centrist presidential candidate who came in third in the 2007 election, touched off the debate on Monday night. He criticised the tone of the campaign, especially from Mr Sarkozy, who is running to the right to try to ensure that he survives the first round of voting on April 22.…

The murder of children “because of their origin, of the religion of their family,” is linked, Mr Bayrou said, “to a growing climate of intolerance” ….

Public figures, he said, “have the duty to make sure that tensions, passions, hatred should not be kept alive at every moment. To point the finger at one or another according to their origins, it is to inflame passions, and we do it because in that flame there are votes to get.”

We now know that the murder of both Jewish and Muslim victims had nothing whatever to do with “a growing climate of intolerance”, or with President Sarkozy’s quest for votes. François Hollande (on whom President Sarkozy is now closing the gap in the polls) made similar accusations, attaching responsibility for the killings to both Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen of the National Front. “There are words that influence, that penetrate, that free up. Those who have responsibility must master their vocabulary,” Mr Hollande said.

In other words, the current debate on immigration inspired by M Sarkozy had influenced, penetrated, freed up the Toulouse serial killer, and M Sarkozy had to take his share of the blame. All consummate drivel, we now know: and shameful drivel at that. There was always a more likely explanation. What kind of person is particularly hostile both to 1) Muslims who have joined Western forces active in Afghanistan (all three soldiers killed had just returned from a tour of duty there) and 2) all Jews, wherever they are? Why automatically assume that must be some kind of European racist? Of course we had to take seriously the possibility that the killer was an Islamist fanatic: that was certainly my own working hypothesis, short of any firm evidence, and nothing surprised me less than to discover that I was right.

M Hollande now deserves to lose this election. Having attempted to get votes away from M Sarkozy by pinning the massacres on him, he cannot now complain if M Sarkozy now turns the table on him. “Grave and sombre,” reported Charles Bremner in the Times newspaper, “President Sarkozy has been offering comfort to a shocked nation in the aftermath of the killings”:

By tradition, his pause from campaigning for a turn as national father figure should bring him an electoral advantage over François Hollande, the centre-left challenger for the presidency. The massacre could transform the campaign for the first-round election on April 22. Mr Sarkozy was already narrowing the lead enjoyed by Mr Hollande in opinion polls and tragedies usually help incumbent presidents — conservative ones in particular — over challengers from the opposition… Much now hangs on the outcome of the hunt for the killer … A swift arrest would enhance the image of chief enforcer that Mr Sarkozy has carefully cultivated.

Well, a swift arrest can now be expected, and by the time this is posted may already have taken place: if you missed it on the news, as I write the police have him surrounded. He has admitted from an upstairs window that he killed the Jews in revenge for the deaths of Palestinian children, and the Muslim soldiers for their complicity in the “occupation” of Afghanistan. Immigration had nothing to do with it: all the victims were French citizens, not immigrants.

What an irony it would be if, as Charles Bremner speculates, this dreadful business does indeed “transform the campaign for the first-round election on April 22”. It has certainly thrown an interesting light on the opposing candidates, one which reflects well on President Sarkozy and very badly indeed on his contemptibly opportunist rivals.