Sarkozy stumps on security, but jobs matter more

ANGELA CHARLTON Associated Press Published:

PARIS (AP) -- A week that terrified France may be just what Nicolas Sarkozy, an underdog in the race for presidential elections in April and May, needs to win a second term.

Or not.

The conservative president is vaunting his tough-on-crime credentials, but polls show voters still think jobs are what matters most. And with unemployment near 10 percent after a half-decade under Sarkozy, most still favor Socialist Francois Hollande.

Sarkozy's campaign strategists are tapping the fear that gripped many in the country last week, after a radical Muslim Frenchman gunned down children and a rabbi at a Jewish school. Police tracked down Mohamed Merah two days later and killed him as he jumped out a window, guns blazing.

With four weeks left before voting begins, the events disrupted the presidential campaign and revived concerns about Islamist extremist-inspired terrorism. And Sarkozy painted himself as France's savior.

"I assume responsibility for all decisions that led to the definitive neutralization of this monstrous killer," Sarkozy said at a campaign rally Saturday, doing nothing to conceal his pride.

He dismissed suggestions that the gunman could have been a victim of circumstance, a poor, minority youth from neglected housing projects rejected by the French state, but embraced by fundamentalists.

"No, France is not guilty. No, there is not a climate in France that can explain these crimes, because these crimes are inexplicable and inexcusable," he said.

He may be winning over some voters from the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim far right. But France's millions of Muslims fear a backlash, and Sarkozy may be alienating others with his violent language and fear-mongering.

Hollande, a moderate and inoffensive leftist who wants to raise taxes on the rich, remains at the top of polls released in recent days -- even though security is one of his weak points.

Hollande raised questions about why the gunman wasn't arrested despite being on a counterterrorism watch-list, and called for "reflection" and "cool-headedness" in responding to last week's drama.

From early on in his career, Sarkozy styled himself as a crime-fighter and protector of the French. As mayor of a well-off Paris suburb in 1993, he helped negotiate with a hostage-taker strapped with explosives in a nursery school. Elite police killed the kidnapper and Sarkozy helped carry children to safety.

Sarkozy's highest point of national popularity came when he was interior minister, in charge of police and security.

He raised ire in troubled suburbs by calling delinquent youth "scum," but won praise among largely white, Catholic constituencies who fear that France's increasing diversity is eating into its traditional values.

But as president, he struggled with financial crises and world diplomacy -- and, his critics said, cut taxes to please his billionaire friends. Sarkozy came into the campaign for re-election so far behind in polls that some speculated he might not even make it into the decisive second round.

Some pundits said he gambled that his best chance of regaining popularity was to sap voters from the resurgent far right, and struck a nationalist, anti-immigrant chord that included digs at Muslim customs such as halal meat.

Then the shootings began. First one paratrooper was killed in Toulouse. Then two others. Then last Monday, a gunman burst into a Jewish school, killed a rabbi and his two young sons and grabbed a 7-year-old girl and shot her in the head.

As schools around the country mourned, the presidential race took a back seat to the ensuing manhunt.

Briefly, fears emerged of a racist, anti-Semitic serial killer because the paratroopers were of North African origin, and the tough-on-immigrant tenor of Sarkozy's rhetoric came under fire. Then it emerged that the gunman was an Islamist radical angry over France's presence in Afghanistan and the plight of Palestinian children.

Many voters and viewers who watched the attacker's 32-hour standoff with police unfold on live TV were relieved when he was killed.

Just a few hours after his body was taken away, Sarkozy was back on the campaign trail. Almost the first words out of his mouth were: France needs "a regime of authority and firmness."

He took pains to warn against stigmatizing France's millions of Muslims because of one murderous extremist.

But in his language and demeanor, the strong cop Sarkozy was back.

"It will revive this part of his image of a man of action, fast decisions, from the time when he was popular and appreciated as someone who could make things happen in France," said Bruno Cautres, political scientist at think tank Cevipof. Unless some new details emerge showing gross errors by police, he said, "Voters will retain that the police were fairly effective."

But, he warned, it may only have a short-term effect.

A recent poll showed security was No. 9 of 13 voter priorities in the presidential campaign. Jobs were the overwhelming No. 1. Polling agency CSA found that respondents think the candidates are talking too much about immigration and crime, and not enough about getting more people employed. CSA questioned 1,004 respondents by telephone March 19 and 20.

Respondents favored Hollande over Sarkozy in a hypothetical runoff by 54 percent to 46 percent. That fits with other recent polls that show Sarkozy gaining on Hollande for the first round, but still well behind for the second round.

Sarkozy may benefit from a new disenchantment with far right candidate Marine Le Pen. She wasted no time in seizing upon the religion of the killer, and his distant ties to Algeria, to rail against immigration and Islam.

"The electorate is shocked by what happened. They may not like her very explicit use of this," Cautres said.

France is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim population -- many of whom are second- or third-generation immigrants from the country's former African colonies -- and the question of their integration has long dogged French political discourse.

Under Sarkozy's leadership, France banned the wearing of face-covering Islamic veils such as burqas in public places -- a practice politicians on the right have decried as inconsistent with Frenchness and the country's staunch secular values. Sarkozy has also threatened to pull out of a treaty that allows for border-free travel throughout much of Western Europe if tighter border controls aren't put in place across the continent.

In Algeria -- where Merah's absent father was from -- and in his hometown of Toulouse, believers expressed hope that the candidates wouldn't turn people against the Muslims and North Africans who have been part of the fabric of French society for generations.

"I am asking the politicians and especially the media: Do not exploit this event for your own interests. We need to remain humble, united in the face of horrors like this," said Mellouki Abdellatif after prayers at a Toulouse mosque. "We are very concerned by all this, we Muslims and our entire national community. Let's stay united."

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Sarah DiLorenzo and Masha Macpherson in Toulouse, and Karim Kebir in Algiers, Algeria, contributed to this report.