The School-Shooting Debate That France Should Be Having

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The French political class is focusing on surface issues instead of the deeper problems that may have contributed to the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse.

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French President Sarkozy speaks to reporters about the shooting in Toulouse / Reuters

In the week since a gunman attacked a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse, killed four, and was later shot dead in a standoff with police, France's political class, with a few exceptions, has been strangely quiet about the lessons of the incident.

In the U.S., public discussion tends to shift quickly to the how and why behind violent attacks, as well as how to prevent such attacks in the future. Although the political response in France has not quite been "silence," as one writer put it in The Guardian ("we hear very little about what [gunman Mohamed] Merah says about the social malaise on our estates," she wrote), what little has been said seems inadequate. The country is in the middle of a closely contested presidential race: why do the contenders seem so reluctant to weigh in?

From Sarkozy, we have learned only that French government is now on the hunt for other Islamic extremists like Mohamed Merah and that it will bar several Muslim clerics from attending a conference in France next month. Far-right presidential candidate Merine Le Pen says that Merah represents a problem with immigration. Sarkozy, to his credit, has attacked this view, pointing out that Merah was born in France. But there has not been much discussion of the social context to the problem of violent Islamic extremism, particularly in its homegrown European form.

Focusing on how a man like Merah became radicalized makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the assumption that radicalization can be prevented simply by arresting radicals or keeping them out of the country -- the two proposals Sarkozy has made so far. Europe at present, and France and Germany in particular, are struggling to integrate immigrants and their children, particularly Muslim immigrants and their children. Europe is also dealing with a problem with homegrown radicals. Though the two aren't necessarily so related that simply treating immigrants better or improving their economic opportunities would solve the radicalization problem outright, ignoring the possible connections between the two trends isn't going to help. The French far-right's habit of responding to domestic radicalization with anti-outsider rhetoric, for example, seems likely to exacerbate the isolation of Muslim communities.

The French press hasn't done much better at starting a serious policy debate. First and second-round responses in Le Monde in the past week have focused on problems within Islam as a religion (one piece argued that what was needed was a complete overhaul of Islam), the constancy of violence in the history of humanity (a fair point, though also an obvious one), or the ugliness of anti-Semitism, including when it is coded as Holocaust denial. Paper Libération offered criticisms of the security failings. "Mohamed Merah was under 'special surveillance,' apparently not very effective," wrote Mathieu Lindon in one of several Libération articles on the topic. "When [Minister of the Interior] Claude Gueant says you cannot arrest people for their ideas, one wonders whether [...] that's a regret or an admission of powerlessness." 

As Islamic scholar Olivier Roy finally pointed out in one of the first in-depth examinations this Monday, "The extreme emotions that gripped public opinion after Merah's crimes has obscured an essential fact: his priority targets were not members of the Jewish community but young French Muslim soldiers. [...] And this is new." Merah's prime motivator were events in Afghanistan, Roy argues, not Palestine.

Integration and non-integration in Europe is becoming more complicated. The French army now includes a significant number of second-generation Muslim immigrants. "The rise of middle-class Muslims has led to a more flexible connection between religious markers," Roy writes, "and cultural markers." The intriguing possibility is that "in killing French Muslim military men, Merah maybe was trying to kill his double and foil."

Though an inquiry into security failures is urgently needed, France's debate clearly cannot stop there. Particularly in an election year, distaste at politicizing a tragedy like the one at Toulouse is understandable. But the declarations so far from Le Pen and Sarkozy have already politicized the matter. Why not put the entire event, in all its complexities, on the table?

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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