© Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty Images
Nicolas Sarkozy, flanked by his yes-men and women, speaks in front of the Jewish school where four people were killed in Toulouse.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is burnishing his crisis-fighting credentials as he seeks to catch up to Francois Hollande in an election campaign upended by the hunt for a man who shot dead seven people in nine days.
Having vowed to find the shooter who killed three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school and three soldiers of Arab descent, Sarkozy's role as France's leader in a national emergency may bolster him just a month before the first round of the presidential election, especially if security jumps up the list of voter concerns, analysts and pollsters say.
The case is enabling "the re-presidentialization of Sarkozy's image," said Eric Bonnet, a pollster at BVA Institute in Paris. "It can help him be seen as more of a unifier than he normally would be."
Although French politicians made a show of unity as the nation mourns the dead by halting all election campaigning, a tough and efficient handling of the case may boost Sarkozy, who has been lagging behind his Socialist opponent Hollande. Both Sarkozy and Hollande will attend the funeral today of three paratroopers who were killed in shootings in Toulouse and Montauban, 30 kilometers away, in southwestern France.
"Barbarity, savagery and cruelty cannot win," Sarkozy said at the school hours after the attack. "The perpetrator of these crimes should know that everything, absolutely everything will be done to find him and make him pay the price."
French police investigating the killings raided a house in northern Toulouse and two policemen were slightly injured in a shootout, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing news services. A man claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda was holed up in the building, the newspaper reported, citing a person linked to the investigation.
The first round of the election will be held on April 22, with the two winners of that vote squaring off in the decisive second round on May 6.
While Sarkozy trails in all voter surveys ahead of the likely run-off against Hollande, he has narrowed the lead. An Ipsos SA poll on voting intentions yesterday showed he has narrowed his deficit against Hollande to 1 percentage point in the first round from 3.5 in a March 3 poll. For the second round, Hollande's lead narrowed to 55 percent against 44 for Sarkozy, compared with a 16-point lead in the previous poll.
Sarkozy leads on security issues. An Ifop poll showed that the French rate him better than Hollande on security by a 58- to-39 percent margin.
The survey for Le Monde
involved 4,728 people questioned from Feb. 16 to 21.
Sarkozy's government has deployed more than 200 investigators to "identify and localize" the Toulouse killer, who used the same gun in all the shootings. Catching the killer quickly will be critical for Sarkozy. An absence of swift results may soon start hurting him.
"This event is off the scale, making the outcome hard to predict," said Helen Drake, Loughborough University in Leicester, U.K.
France's terror alert has been put on its highest level in the Toulouse area, where 14 military police units have been sent to protect Jewish and Muslim houses of worship and schools.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant and Defense Minister Gerard Longuet have set up bases in Toulouse to oversee their ministries' effort.
Both Sarkozy and Hollande visited the school on March 19 just hours after the attack, attended a service at a Paris synagogue that evening, and yesterday observed a minute of silence at different schools in Paris. Sarkozy met yesterday with Jewish and Muslim leaders, some of whom left the meeting arm in arm.
The Toulouse killings were the first shootings at a French school and the worst attack on a Jewish target since 1982.
Security had been a bigger issue in the 2007 election, which followed Sarkozy's stint as Interior Minister. The French interior ministry oversees law-enforcement agencies.
'Climate of Intolerance'
This year, his campaign speeches have been peppered with suggestions that France's Muslim immigrants have failed to properly integrate and assurances that French school canteens won't be forced to serve Halal meat, or meat killed according to Muslim religious dictates.
While the shootings of the soldiers and at the school allow Sarkozy to "say it's me or chaos," some voters may blame him for "creating a climate of intolerance," Drake said.
Religious leaders have tried to keep the killings and the election separate.
"There is no link between the campaign and what happened," said Richard Prasquier, head of the CRIF, France's largest Jewish lobby, after meeting Sarkozy. "Nobody grabs a child by the hair so he can put a bullet in her head because he heard something about religious slaughter of animals."
Security hasn't been a major issue in the election so far, with just 15 percent of voters saying it will weigh on their choice, behind the economic crisis at 50 percent, unemployment at 46 percent and government debt at 32 percent, according to the Ifop poll. Political observers are watching closely to see if that is about to change
"If security comes back as an issue, Sarkozy will probably be seen as more credible than Hollande," BVA's Bonnet said. "Historically, whenever security is a problem, the right benefits, even if the difficulties happen on their watch."
Sarkozy first came to national attention as mayor of Neuilly, a town near Paris, when in a 1993 kindergarten hostage drama he talked a dynamite-belted, ransom-demanding gunman into releasing a child, with television footage showing the mayor leaving the classroom with the youngster in his arms. After 46 hours of talks, the gunman was killed by police sharpshooters and the seven remaining hostages were freed unharmed.