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Call off this Culture War over Toulouse

Even before we knew the identity of the anti-Semitic school-shooter, people were turning him into a symbol of all that’s wrong with France.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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Even before we had discovered the identity of the man responsible for the horrific murders at a Jewish school in Toulouse, a journalist from France had called me up to ask who I thought might be responsible for this heinous act.

At first, I didn’t understand the question. I am no clairvoyant and of course I had no privileged information regarding the identity of the killer. Then I realised that what the journalist really wanted from me was to indict some politician or political party for creating a ‘climate of hate’ during the ongoing French presidential election campaign. When I informed him that this is not the time for political point-scoring, he abruptly ended the conversation.

Far too many people seem to regard the Toulouse tragedy as an opportunity to attack their opponents in the Culture Wars enveloping Europe. Before the indentity of the killer was revealed – we now know it was Mohammed Merah, who had jihadist connections – opponents of President Sarkozy could barely restrain their delight that what we had in Toulouse was another example of Anders Behring Breivik, the crazed right-wing xenophobe who killed 77 people in a shooting spree in Norway last year.

Many opinion-makers even conveyed the idea that the murders in Toulouse could have beneficial political consequences. Before all the facts were known, they cynically depicted the killings 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, blaming 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, while decrying cultural ‘divisions’, Bayrou, like many others, was trying 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 homegrown French xenophobe, their opponents were silently praying that he would be exposed as a card-carrying member of al-Qaeda. And now that we discover that the murderer is named Mohammed Merah and not something like 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 immigration and cultural symbols such as halal meat into campaign issues, is no less likely to resist the opportunity for some opportunist point-scoring than his opponents are.

Profound political divisions are part of French history. The polarisation of French society over the Dreyfus Affair in the early twentieth century and between the left and the right during the Cold War are integral to this nation’s history. But what distinguished those conflicts from the current divisions is that they represented a struggle for the soul of France.

The current Culture War, by contrast, is underpinned by confusions about the very meaning of what it is to be French. Some are embarrassed by France and its historic legacy and would rather opt for a society where people’s identities were set free from the past. Others attempt to construct a caricatured version of France, where the nation’s identity is expressed negatively through what it does not like – halal meat, the Muslim veil, immigration, and so on.

It is the poverty of political vision among all the main protagonists in this drama that accounts for their opportunistic treatment of 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 one’s opponents. Shame on both sides.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here. An edited version of this article was published in the Australian on 22 March 2011

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