Yesterday the FT opinion desk was offered a piece from a prominent French commentator, attacking President Sarkozy for having helped to create a climate of intolerance in France. A decision was made not to run it, on the grounds that we didn’t yet know who was responsible for the killings in Toulouse and Montauban. It was not yet clear that this was the work of right-wing extremists.
The rush to judgement was not confined to the French left. Also yesterday I heard a strange piece on the BBC’s “Today” programme (compulsory listening for the British middle-classes), where once again the premise of the discussion was that the killer of the French soldiers and the Jewish school-children was likely to be a right-wing extremist. This also struck me as very premature.
And so it seems. As I write the French police are surrounding the house of the chief suspect, who appears to have been an al-Qaeda member or sympathiser.
The urge to rush to judgement after a terrorist incident is a common one. After the Madrid bombings of 2004, the Spanish government of Jose-Maria Aznar was desperate to pin the atrocity on Basque terrorists – only to discover that it was al-Qaeda. Then, after the massacre of Norwegian school-children last year, some of the first reactions assumed that this too would be al-Qaeda – but it turned out to be a far-right extremist.
So, assuming that we now know that the French killer was linked to al-Qaeda, what impact would that have on the presidential election? Clearly, if the killer was linked to the far-right, that would have been bad news for Marine Le Pen and the Front National. Conversely, a killer who is an Islamist extremist, presumably benefits her – and indeed Ms Le Pen has been swift to say that France has been too slow to face the truth about Islamist extremism.
But I’m not sure that an al-Qaeda killer is necessarily bad for President Sarkozy. After all, as his critics were quick to note just yesterday, he has been pretty tough on immigration and has talked of the need to promote and defend traditional French values.
So maybe these atrocities will turn out to have no direct political impact. But, once again, it is too soon to jump to conclusions.
UPDATE: This blog has been corrected to recognise the fact that François Hollande claims no religious affiliation.
Get alerts on World when a new story is published