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ADVANTAGE SARKO

The fire in France

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ADVANTAGE SARKO: A French woman pays tribute to the shootout victims. Acting decisively in a crisis is seen as one of President Sarkozy's (below left) virtues

The Toulouse killings have altered the tone of the presidential campaign, tilting it - at least for a little while - in Sarkozy's favour.

With the candidate of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, calling for a "war on these fundamentalist political religious groups who are killing our children", it was easy for President Nicolas Sarkozy to take the high road in the sharp political reaction to the terrorist acts of Mohammed Merah, who was killed by the police on Thursday in Toulouse after himself claiming responsibility for killing seven people.

Despite the failure of the French state to catch Merah before his rampage or to capture him alive, the killings have nonetheless altered the tone of the presidential campaign, which was briefly suspended, tilting it - at least for a little while - in Sarkozy's favour.

Despite having built a reputation for toughness on crime and for polarising comments about immigrants and Islam, Sarkozy quickly donned the calming, sober cloak of leadership, incarnating France, casting himself as the president who unites and protects, rather than the candidate who divides.

As the issues of this long presidential campaign shift from economic anxiety and joblessness to terrorism and crime, Sarkozy's candidacy continues to reap the benefits, political experts say. It is only on issues related to security that he outpolls his main challenger, the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, whose focus has been on the economy.

"Toulouse changes, in some measure, the themes of the campaign, moving it from economic issues to terrorism and crime, " said Pascal Perrineau, director of the Centre for Political Research at the Institute d'? tudes Politiques. "Security, which was at the margins, becomes more important, and the candidate finds himself president again, at the heart of the system. "

Acting decisively in a crisis is seen as one of Sarkozy's virtues, and the events of the last 10 days in Toulouse have allowed him to remind the French of what they like about him, rather than what they dislike.

Sarkozy is likely to gain a few points in the opinion polls, Perrineau said, and may reach his goal of beating Hollande in the first round of the election on April 22, when 10 candidates are competing. Among those are Le Pen, the centrist Fran?ois Bayrou and the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mêlenchon, who is also squeezing Hollande.

"But the second round is much harder for Sarkozy, " Perrineau said. He believes that Hollande will win the presidency in the runoff on May 6.

Christian Salmon, writing in the magazine Marianne, asked, "Can one appeal to national unity, to respect, to healing when one has inflamed passions and divided the French?" He then described the way this national drama had been used "to capture the emotions of voters for electoral ends. "

The Toulouse killings allowed Sarkozy "the means to place himself in the heart of the campaign and reduce his adversaries to silence, " Salmon wrote. While the campaign was formally suspended, "we could only hear him - he was the only one able to campaign, " albeit through his office.

While Sarkozy remained aloof, his lieutenants attacked Hollande and Bayrou as having politicised Toulouse. Hollande had urged politicians to watch their "vocabulary, " while Bayrou had criticised the harsh anti-immigrant statements of Sarkozy and Le Pen as a contributing factor "to a growing climate of intolerance" that led to the singling out of minorities.

After Merah turned out to be the killer, however - the very kind of radicalised child of immigrants that the right and far right have warned about - the foreign minister, Alain Juppê, called such insinuations of politicisation "ignoble", adding, "Let's not add the disgusting to the horrific. "

In a speech after the shootout, Sarkozy said he would prosecute people who regularly consulted jihadist web sites or who traveled abroad for indoctrination. "Any person who habitually consults Internet sites that praise terrorism and call for hatred and violence will be punished under criminal law, " he said, as well as anyone who travels abroad for "indoctrination into ideologies that lead to terrorism. " He also announced that he was instructing the authorities to investigate the promotion of extremism in French prisons - hardly a new problem, since nearly every French proponent of fundamentalist or jihadi thinking has been radicalised in French prisons, which have, experts estimate, a sizable majority of Muslim inmates.

But Sarkozy's speech was a reminder, as he prepared to return in earnest to the campaign, of the extraordinary powers of the French president, who is a kind of republican monarch. And who is expected to act like one.

NYT NEWS SERVICE

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