Once again, France woke to news of a string of dawn raids against suspected Islamists across the country, from the old industrial heartlands of the north to Marseille on the southern coast. Days earlier, rolling TV-news and breakfast bulletins broadcast dramatic images as elite anti-terrorist squads in black body armor smashed windows and bashed down doors shouting “Police,” emerging with handcuffed suspects with their faces covered, on residential streets from Nantes to Toulouse.
Less than three weeks before the first round of the presidential election, France is gripped by one of its biggest crackdowns on suspected radical Islamists in recent memory. Amplified by TV coverage, it has been led by an unrelenting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also battling for re-election. Opposition politicians now openly question whether the timing and TV crews are as much linked to electioneering as anti-terrorist crime prevention.
France is still in a state of shock and confusion after Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old unemployed panelbeater from Toulouse, went on a 10-day killing spree across southwest France, executing three paratroopers and shooting children and a rabbi at the gates of a Jewish school. Following a dramatic 32-hour siege at his flat, Merah died in a hail of police bullets as he jumped from the balcony. However, questions remain over how Merah — who claimed inspiration from al-Qaeda, was heavily armed, on police intelligence files and had been under surveillance — was not picked up earlier and his attacks prevented. Some commentators warn that the new anti-terrorist crackdown, which included the deportation of a handful of preachers, should not be used as a smokescreen to distract from potential failings in the Merah operation.
The right-wing Sarkozy had long ago seen his election strategy compared with that of former US president George W. Bush’s 2004 fight for re-election: styling himself as the only trustworthy protector of the nation in the face of serious threat. A month ago, the danger was impending financial meltdown. Now, it is closer to Bush’s own target: Islamist fundamentalism and terrorism. Sarkozy last week likened the Toulouse killings to France’s Sept. 11. The scale of the attacks may be different, he said, but the national “traumatism” was the same.
The justice system will have the last word on the arrests, which were not directly linked to Merah. Preliminary charges have been filed against 13 alleged members of a banned fundamentalist group. An intelligence chief suggested militants were planning a kidnapping. The 10 arrested on Tuesday were suspected of links to Islamist Web sites and of threatening violence in online forums.