French media have not shied away from referencing the Algerian roots of 23-year-old Toulouse gunman Mohammed Merah since French authorities disclosed them. However, their Algerian counterparts have kicked up a storm, eager to renounce Mr. Merah’s Algerian identity.
No, wait. That’s not quite right. Algerian media are actually pointing out, correctly, that Merah is not Algerian at all. He was born and raised in France, went to French schools, ate and watched TV in the suburbs of Toulouse, and tried to join the French Foreign Legion. He spent much of his life with his family in the French projects, an area known as Les Izards in northeast Toulouse.
That makes him French, not Algerian, they say.
The effort to turn Merah into a quasi-Algerian takes the identity of a French kid whose father left him in Toulouse at the age of six and transforms it into a kind of shadowy stereotype – a dangerous Algerian of ill repute.
As the daily newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran puts it, "By emphasizing the Algerian origin of Mohamad Merah … France outsources crime and washes its hands of responsibility.”
The same publication, influential in Algeria, stated, " ’The Algerian origin’ [of Merah] is hammered [in French media] as a kind of genetic fingerprint and ethnic crime, and is even more unbearable than the entire French political scene.…”
“Why equate Merah with the Magreb of North Africa?” reads a headline from Abdelmalek Alaoui in the French-language Atlantico.
"The Algerian press has been the most acerbic," says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior fellow at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris, adding that the Arab world is "weary" of taking responsibility for extremists claiming to champion causes they know little about.
One paratrooper killed by Merah was also French with Algerian parents and happened to be named Mohammed. Mohammed Logouad came from a similarly poor, suburban background, but made a success for himself in an elite military unit.
Merah’s father, Mohammed Benalel, who lives near Tiaret, has steadily exacerbated the Franco-Algerian gap. First he criticized French police for the operation that killed his son and said he would file a lawsuit in French courts. When Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested the father stop speaking at a sensitive time, Mr. Benalel said he would not, and has arranged for his son to be buried in Algeria later this week.
There is a powerful backdrop to the shootings, as well: the date. They took place the same week as 50th anniversary of Algeria’s bloody independence from France, a wound still felt on both sides of the Mediterranean.