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M. Merah and Toulouse -- Will Sarkozy Benefit?

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Even before Mohammed Merah -- a 23-year-old French punk and part-time garage mechanic turned Jihadist -- died in a hail of bullets in Toulouse, the horrific affair had already become the focus of France's current heated presidential campaign.

No one benefited more from the crisis than President Nicholas Sarkozy, for whom law and order has always been a calling card. But after acting admirably presidential during the most ghastly moments of the crisis, calling for national unity and a temporary halt to electioneering, once Merah had been disposed of, Sarkozy abruptly reverted to the erratic manner that has also been his hallmark over the years.

He announced his intention to present legislation to the French Parliament making it a crime for people to travel abroad for terrorist indoctrination or consult jihadist websites.

Predictably Sarkozy's tough proposal immediately drew fire from a wide range of critics.

As I argue in another post today, the president's proposals are precipitous, and, above all, a dangerous threat to French civil liberties. Punishing people who -- for whatever reason -- choose to read the contents of certain proscribed Internet sites, would, in effect, oblige France to create a new category of law enforcers -- very much akin to the "Thought Police" so terrifyingly portrayed by George Orwell in 1984.

France already has enough laws on the books to deal with the terrorist threat without crippling its democratic traditions.

Another tack taken by Sarkozy, this time to hobble his opponents on the left, is to wrap himself in the national flag and maintain -- as Sarkozy immediately did -- that it is despicable for anyone to blame French society for the outrageous actions of Mohammed Merah and the obscene rampage in Toulouse.

Sarkozy's supposed indignation is a blatant attempt to sweep France's enormous social problems -- particularly the integration of the country's 5-6 million immigrants of Islamic origin -- under the carpet, at least during the election campaign. It is also a bet that the French, outraged by the events of the past few days, would turn against any attempts by the left to take up the issue of failed integration at this febrile time.

Indeed Sarkozy's theme was immediately amplified by four deputies from his UMP who called for revision of the French Code of Nationality. They're after regulations that would make it easier to dispatch the hordes of delinquents and trouble-makers in the banlieues, like Mohammed Merah, ("scum" Sarkozy once famously called them) back to the lands of their forefathers.

After all, the UMP deputies argue, the only thing about Merah that was French were his identity papers."

That statement is absurd. As the leftist Liberation editorialized this morning:

Merah is certainly a monster, but a French monster and monsters also reveal the fabric of a country. For how many generations can a child born French be sent back to his Algerian origins, and for how many generations will the origin of his ancestors make him a foreigner in the country that is his?

For further background, readers might be interested in other blogs I've written over the past few days about France, Mohammed Merah and the slaughter in Toulouse.