• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Toulouse murders open front in culture war

A day before we discover the identity of the man responsible for the horrific murders at a Jewish school in Toulouse, a journalist from France calls me up to ask me for my view on who is responsible for this heinous act.

At first I don’t understand the question. I am no clairvoyant and possess no privileged information regarding the identity of the killer.

Then I realise that what he really wants from me is to indict a politician or some party for creating a “climate of hate” during the ongoing French election campaign. When I inform him that this is not the time for political point scoring he abruptly ends our conversation.

Far too many people appear to regard the Toulouse tragedy as an opportunity to attack their opponent in the culture war enveloping Europe. Before the indentity of the killer was revealed as someone with jihadist connections opponents of President Sarkozy could barely restrain their delight that what they had in Toulouse was another example of Anders Behring Breivik, a crazed right-wing xenophobe who killed 77 people in a shooting spree in Norway last year.

Far too many opinion makers conveyed the sentiment that this latest episode could have beneficial political consequences. From their perspective the murders were recast as an attack on multicultural society.

The journalist Pierre Haski wrote “this is not a Columbine-style shooting, but a cold-blooded, well-planned targeting of minority groups: Arab, Jewish, black”.

Others joined in and blamed Sarkozy’s “campaign of hate” for creating a climate that was conducive to acts of xenophobic violence.

Francois Bayrou, the presidential candidate of the centrist MoDem party, was in no doubt that the murders “had their roots in the current state of French society”, which had become “poisoned by divisions”. Paradoxically a statement decrying cultural “divisions” sought to use a tragedy to make a political point.

While one group of culture war crusaders were dreaming that the killer would emerge as a home grown French xenophobe their opponents were silently praying that he would be exposed as a card carrying member of al-Qa’ida.

And now that we discover that the murderer is named Mohammed Merah and not Anders Behring Breivik it is likely that the other side of the culture war will go on the offensive and blame alien influences for this horrific crime.

Sarkozy, who has already made such symbols of culture as halal meat and the immigration into campaign issues is no less likely to resist the opportunity of opportunist point scoring than his opponents.

Profound political divisions are part of French history.

The polarisation of French society over the Dreyfuss Affair and between the left and the right during the Cold War are integral to this nation’s history. But what distinguished these conflicts from the current divisions is that it represented a struggle for the soul of France.

The current Culture War is underpinned by confusions about the very meaning of what it means to be French.

Some are embarrassed by France and its historic legacy and would rather opt for a society where people’s identity was released from the past.

Others attempt to construct a caricatured version of France where nation’s identity is expressed negatively through what it does not like halal meat, the veil, immigration.

It is the poverty of the political vision of the main protagonists in this drama that accounts for their opportunistic treatment the Toulouse killings.

The tragedy that befell the families of the victims of Mohammed Merah is bad enough. But it is overshadowed by a restless and intolerant conflict of culture that regards the victims as merely ammunition to be used against their opponents. Shame on both sides!

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