News Analysis: How will Toulouse gunman episode affect French elections?

Updated: 2012-03-23 00:59:00

(Xinhua)

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BRUSSELS, March 22 (Xinhua) -- The dust has barely settled after Toulouse gunman Mohammed Merah was shot dead by French security forces, but speculation is rife on how the episode will affect upcoming French presidential elections.

The tense two-day standoff with police has evoked a strong response from Marine Le Pen, the head of the far right National Front, claiming the Toulouse killings are evidence that France has "dangerously underestimated the threat of Islamic fundamentalism."

In an interview with French television on Thursday, she suggested a referendum on the death penalty and accused the government of grossly underestimating the country's struggle against fundamentalism.

For his part, the incumbent French president and right-wing UMP party candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has largely steered clear of ethnic profiling and called for national unity in the wake of the Toulouse gunman saga.

A "man of law and order" as he introduced himself when serving as French interior minister in the Jacques Chirac administration, Sarkozy is instead likely to stress relative efficiency in dealing with Mohammed Merah once his identity became known.

Analysts believe he would be well advised not to adopt a position too similar to the far right to increase his appeal among moderate and left-leaning voters as the president chose to have upped the anti-immigrant rhetoric in reelection campaign speeches last week.

Following this week's events, migration and security are expected to become hot-button topics, more so than they were in the 2007 presidential elections. This poses a particular challenge for the leftist French Socialist Party and its candidate Francois Hollande, who opinion polls give an edge over Sarkozy.

"I expect the left and their campaign will focus on political extremism and what France can do to counter extremism, especially with foreign policy," Joseph Janning, chief analyst at Brussels-based think tank European Policy Center, told Xinhua.

No matter how the French left develops a line of argument against the right, experts feel integration of ethnic and religious minorities in the country is likely to dominate the presidential debate in the weeks and months to come.

The Toulouse gunman episode has reinforced fears of stigmatization of religious communities in the country, among Muslims and Jews alike.

France has long banned the use of veils in public, overt religious symbolism in schools, and the subject of ritualistic animal slaughter has also recently come under scrutiny.

The key question is which candidate will be able to best gauge the nation's mood and convince the French public they have what it takes to fight fundamentalism at home while sparking economic growth.