Sarkozy shines after France attacks, but voters appear unswayed

President Sarkozy got credit for deft handling of the deadly attacks on a Jewish school and French soldiers. But polls indicate the public has other concerns ahead of April elections.

Kenzo Tribouillard/AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech to magistrates and policemen who took part in the investigations in the shooting of seven persons and the siege of the gunman Mohamed Merah in Toulouse, at the Elysee palace in Paris, Tuesday.

A killing spree in France that brought presidential election campaigning to a halt and dominated media for days appears to have had little impact on how people will vote, defying predictions that President Nicolas Sarkozy would benefit appreciably.

The events – a killer who shot three paratroopers, three Jewish children, and a rabbi in mid-March, a month before the first round of elections – has been the kind of crisis where Mr. Sarkozy shines. It underscored his increasing focus on security and crime: The killer, Mohammed Merah, who claimed Al Qaeda connections, was quickly discovered, and died in a standoff with police last week in Toulouse.

Yet Mr. Sarkozy, who has looked and sounded presidential while attending the recent funeral of paratroopers, and speaking of the need to unify the nation, slid 0.5 percent, from 28.5 percent to 28 percent, in polls this week by the French Institute of Public Opinion (Ifop). Moreover, French public fears of a major terrorist attack have actually fallen since the brutal events in Toulouse, a different Ifop poll shows.

“This shooting in itself is not going to give rise to any swing vote at all,” says Arun Kapil, political scientist at Catholic University in Paris. “It was one guy, a psycho, and maybe his brother. … France didn’t get hysterical. In the US, it may have had a different outcome. But if you look at all the data, what the French say again and again they want are jobs, purchasing power, and better schools.”

This week, Sarkozy stayed in the spotlight with his insistence that a video made by the killer of his grisly acts not be played on Al Jazeera, or any other media, after a copy was anonymously sent to the Paris office of the Qatar-based cable network.  

But Sarkozy has been in the spotlight for five years, analysts say, and the polls indicate a basic difference in the alchemy of French and American voter thinking, with the French separating the attacks from their choice of candidates, at least for now.

France conducts two rounds of voting if a contender does not score more than 50 percent in the first round (and no contender ever has). Round one is on April 22. But if it were held tomorrow, Sarkozy (28 percent) and  Socialist François Hollande (26.5 percent) would face each other in a May 5 runoff. Mr. Hollande is currently leading second-round polls, 53.5 to 43.6 percent, over Sarkozy.

Ifop cited the death of Osama bin Laden and other factors in finding that French fears of a high likelihood of a terrorist attack fell to 53 percent of nearly 1,000 persons questioned. It is the lowest figure since the company began asking the question.

"As horrible as they were, these crimes didn't have the same impact on public opinion as bomb attacks, for example," reported Ifop.

While Mr. Merah claimed Al Qaeda credentials, police have since questioned the degree and seriousness of his integration with the group.

A change from expectations a week earlier

Last week, analysts compared the French shooting to the bombing by Al Qaeda of a Madrid train bombing ahead of 2004 national elections that swung the vote in the last hour.

Others saw a convergence in France of the far right message of candidate Marine Le Pen, who has raised issues of crime, foreigners, and Islam, and recent efforts of Sarkozy to answer Ms. Le Pen with equally tough messages.

The Toulouse shootings were thus seen as possibly legitimizing Sarkozy’s rapid and somewhat controversial shift to the political right, even as he took the high ground after the shootings as a national unifier.

Yet if there has been any significant change in recent days, it is the strong showing of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. The anti-elite, colorful Mr. Melenchon had a huge rally of 80,000 in Paris on March 18, larger than Sarkozy’s main event a week earlier, the effect of which was largely lost the next day as Merah attacked a Jewish school.

Melenchon has moved from 12 to 13.5 percent, and is said to be gnawing at the votes of Mr. Hollande, the Socialist center-left  frontrunner, with a message that stresses economic and social welfare improvement.

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