Toulouse is over and politics can resume, so has anything changed?

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy has a lead in the latest opinion poll of 2% in the first round standings Photo: Reuters

Make no mistake, events like the Toulouse massacre and siege can swing elections. We saw it in Spain in 2004 when the Madrid train bombings almost single-handedly unseated Spanish Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar just 3 days later. We have seen it before in France where Islamist attacks on the Paris metro in 1995 led to huge gains for the far-right National Front in Parliamentary elections.

There’s still more than a month to go before the first round of voting, and then another fortnight until the decisive second round, so there’s plenty of time for things to change and memories to fade, but as of now there is one clear winner: Nicolas Sarkozy. He has responded with calm and dignity, his security forces have performed well and his recent warnings against uncontrolled immigration and lax border controls turn out to have been well timed. His reward is a lead in the latest opinion poll of 2% in the first round standings, not much, but a huge improvement on where he was just a month or so ago.

A national crisis always favours the incumbent as long as he performs well, and there is close to consensus in the French press that he has risen to the seriousness of the crisis. It was Sarkozy who got to make the speeches demanding national unity, to attend the funerals of fallen soldiers, to rise above politics and speak ‘for France’. But the politics never really went away. It has served his campaign perfectly to be able to avoid talking about unemployment and lack of growth and the Euro crisis.

The question now is whether security, multiculturalism and the defence of French ‘civilization’ will continue to dominate this campaign. But if they do, the big winner could turn out to be Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Immediately after the shootings at the Jewish school, when conclusions were being jumped to that this must be the work of a deranged Nazi fired up by the rhetoric of the far-right, it was assumed that Le Pen would suffer.

Marine Le Pen, France's National Front head and far right candidate for 2012 French presidential election,
Marine Le Pen, France's National Front head and far right candidate for 2012 French presidential election, Credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

In fact she handled herself well, kept quiet, and may yet get to reap the benefit. Sarkozy had already been eating into her support with his swing to the right (the Wall St Journal dubbing him ‘Nicolas Le Pen’). Now she may be able to fight back, as her father once did, by describing herself as the ‘authentic voice’ of opposition to Islam and immigration, rather than those who rediscover it only as polling day approaches.

One interesting figure to come out of the latest poll is that there has been no movement at all in second round voting intentions. François Hollande still holds a comfortable 8% lead in a notional run-off against Sarkozy. All the swings in the first round appear to be between Sarkozy and Le Pen on the right, and Hollande and his rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left. On the big question of ‘do you want 5 more years of Sarkozy or do you want the man who portrays himself as the anti-Sarkozy?’, French opinion appears to have changed very little.