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A lurch to the right

March 20, 2012

OVER the past few years of recession and regression, it has become a trite truism of European politics that you can’t go wrong going to the right. Politicians across the continent have found a new magic formula for electoral success and survival by playing on fears of foreigners and particularly of Islam — the wink and a nod that says that immigration has been the root of our social and economic decline.

This is by no means an exclusively rightwing vice. Anyone who has heard the Dutch Labour Party recently will have difficulty putting light between them and the demagogue Geert Wilders.

Until now, they might have tried to argue that there was no harm in it, that it’s a rebalancing of the scales after two decades of biting our tongues and creeping political correctness.

The French airwaves have been full of such ugly equivocation these past few weeks as President Nicolas Sarkozy has lurched his party wildly to the right in an attempt to save his skin, claiming there were “too many immigrants in France” and stoking Islamophobia with a ridiculous claim that the French were being secretly forced to eat halal; his prime minister Francois Fillon even said Jews and Muslims should put their dietary laws behind them and embrace modernity.

Claude Gueant, the interior minister who took personal control of the investigation into the killing of three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, has been the most consistently xenophobic, championing the superiority of European Christian civilisation over lesser cultures who force their women to cover up — yes, orthodox Jews and Muslims, he meant you.

In Toulouse we have been given a horrific illustration of where such a delirious cynicism can lead. All of those have been shot or killed in and around the city in the past eight days have had one thing in common. They are from visible minorities. They had names or faces that marked them out as not being descended, as Jean-Marie Le Pen would say, from “our ancestors the Gauls”.

Their roots — both Jewish and Muslim — were in the Maghreb or the Caribbean. They were, in short, a snapshot of la France metissee — the mixed race, immigrant France that works hard and “gets up early” to empty bins and look after children; the people who die disproportionately for France yet who are also most often locked up in its prisons.

The Toulouse gunman shouted no jihadist or anti-Semitic slogans, going about his grisly business in the cold, military manner oddly similar to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who massacred 77 people at a social democrats summer camp last summer.

As with Breivik, politicians will be quick to the thesis of the lone madman. Another lone madman influenced by nothing but his own distorted mind, like the lone gang of neo-Nazis who had been quietly killing Turks and Greeks in Germany for years unbothered by the police, who preferred to put the murders down to feuds or honour killings.

What could be the link, they ask, between Jewish children and French military personnel? The link is they are both seen as symbols of all that has sabotaged la France forte, to borrow Sarkozy’s election slogan. Confessional schools, be they Jewish or an informal weekend madressah, are seen as actively undermining the secular Republic.

Not even Nicolas Sarkozy, who has most politically to lose from these killings, is trying to hide the link with race and religion. Just as he echoed the old National Front slogan “Love France or leave it” and then denied he ever said it, on Monday he called on the French people to stand up “against hate”, having spent the past few months manically stirring it.

The next 34 days will see whether he will be swept away by the storm he has helped to start. — The Guardian, London