Thanks to Eurostar, Paris is now a city to which affluent Londoners can head for a night out. In a space of little more than 24 hours earlier this week, I squeezed in Shemekia Copeland’s stunning live blues show at New Morning jazz club, a blow-out meal at an historic brasserie and a spot of sightseeing, and am now safely back at my desk.
Yet I was aware from start to finish that the nation’s attention was not on its capital. The seven recent murders in and around Toulouse and the subsequent siege that has ended with the death of Mohammed Merah has focused everyone’s attention on continuing racial tensions on the other side of the Channel.
The debate over this sequence of events has polarised along predictable lines. Some far left publications instantly attributed the killings to fascists and seemingly dismissed the possibility that it could be the work of an Islamist.
Meanwhile, one of Britain’s most widely-read political blogs slated a well-known activist for her insistence that Merah’s acts were generated by grievances and injustices. All of these stances are entirely predictable.
No doubt we will get a clearer picture as to Merah’s motivation and mental health – and ascertain whether his claims of al Qa’eda instruction are more than bluster – as the investigation proceeds. Opinions ventured before the facts are established are often of little weight.
Nobody should seek to make excuses for what this man did, anymore than they would seek to disculpate Anders Breivik. Clearly, one does not avenge the murder of Palestinian children by the murder of Jewish children.
But while there is no causal relationship between Muslim alienation and what Merah did, even the tourists among us can see that it remains a palpable factor in present day French politics, and does urgently to be both debated and addressed.
The high rates of unemployment among young men of north African descent combined with repressive policing in the banlieus have sparked waves of riots in the past and have the potential to do so again.
What most shocks me as an outside observer is the extent to which French politicians who command substantial electoral support have no compunction in resorting to explicit appeals to racism.
Marine Le Pen either lied deliberately or took no care to check when she contended that all meat sold in Paris was halal. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy immediately took the issue up and called for halal and kosher meat to be marked clearly as such.
Only last week, the president insisted that there were “too many foreigners in France”, and pledged to cut immigration in half and limit the entitlement of legal immigrants to benefits.
Already the analysts and commentators are discussing these killings in terms of which politicians will benefit the most in the impending presidential elections. The verdict is that this tragedy will be a boost to Sarkozy’s prospects.
I would not wish to suggest that Sarkozy’s condemnation of Merah is insincere. But in what is shaping up to be a tight race, he is presumably not entirely displeased with all the repercussions.