Toulouse is a city in southwestern France, famous for its old town, relaxed atmosphere, passionate love of rugby, and duck based specialties. The city has never been associated with violence, but today, Toulouse is in shock following the killing of three French servicemen, three Jewish school-children, and a rabbi by a masked gunman.
The murder in cold blood of small children and unarmed men is always horrific. Even more so is the fact that they were targeted for being members of a certain profession, of a certain community, and of a certain faith.
At first, there were concerns that it was the work of far-right extremists – some even speculated disgruntled former French soldiers might be behind the atrocity – but this now seems to be the handiwork of an Al-Qaeda sympathizer. Breaking news should always be treated with caution – prone at first to inaccuracies – but this is verifiably accurate.
As I write this, the RAID – the French equivalent of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team – have started their assault on the flat where the suspect is barricaded. They will undoubtedly either succeed in killing or capturing him, thereby potentially bringing an end to the fear of Toulouse's people.
Campaigning for the French presidential elections has already been suspended, and a minute’s silence has been observed in respect for the victims by all French schools. The incident has left a small religious community is in shock and disbelief, and an entire nation in painful introspection. All over France, many are asking “How could this have happened here?”
The answer is not an easy one. Being French, I understand all too well the nuances, complexities, and tribulations of French society, with regards to the difficult issues of race or religion. There are undoubtedly deep and sustained tensions within France and its various communities. Sometimes – as we have seen in the past – these tensions become greatly inflamed, leading to riots in poor suburbs or attacks on minorities. This attack, however, does not mean that France is sliding into an abyss of ethno-centric, racially or politically motivated violence.
Acts of this sort will always be the work of extremists. These men are often loners, frequently work without support, and harbor unsubstantiated grudges. The attacks are not reflective of wider French society. However, the incident does raise the issue of the increasingly angry war of words in French politics; a war in which the rhetoric of anti-immigration and integration has increasingly become a vote-winner for certain parties and individuals. Could it be that such reckless use of inflammatory language or divisive topics actually unwittingly helps indirectly engender these kinds of acts? This is a question that cannot be answered to any absolute degree of certainty.
Mainstream French society has come a long way from the days my parents grew up in – when racism and anti-Semitism were socially acceptable bases for discourse. Today, France is – in many ways – a tolerant, inclusive and free society. However, issues still remain in terms of immigration, integration, and the role of minority communities in French society and community life. Politicians, especially President Nicolas Sarkozy, should be mindful of using these very divisions as wedge issues to divide France in order to win elections. This is a dangerous game, because there will always be those who will exploit these differences to justify their heinous acts.
The gunman – no matter what his motivations or political inclinations – will be brought to justice for the crimes he has committed. It is also to be expected that France will take every measure to ensure that this sort of mass murder can never happen again with such ease or speed. This process will have to involve a thorough appraisal of the role that divisive and polarizing election rhetoric has in helping to fashion the climate for such babaric acts.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons