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How dangerous is French nationalism?

As France is looking for what is thought to be a right-wing killer, polticians from all parties are calling for the "Grande Nation" to stay united against evil.

One day after the bloody attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, the country of France remains in shock: At 11a.m. local time a nationwide minute of silence was held for the victims of the shooting. Both incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and his main rival Francois Hollande took part in the commemorative silence. A day before, top officials in the French government paid tribute to the victims at a Paris synagogue.

Three children and a teacher were killed on Monday in the attack in Toulouse, a city known for quietude and one which, until then, had only really been known internationally as the headquarters of the European aviation giant Airbus.

The suspected perpetrator, who has been alleged of harboring ties to right-wing extremist groups, has yet to be apprehended. According to a report published in the French magazine Le Point, he could be one of three soldiers discharged four years ago for alleged neo-Nazi activities.

There is also speculation that the attack is connected to three murders of soldiers with Maghrebi and Caribbean backgrounds - who were shot dead in recent weeks with the weapon used in the Toulouse shooting.

French President and UMP party candidate for the 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy, center, pauses as he speaks in front of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school following a shooting incident, alongside France's Education Minister Luc Chatel, second from left, France's Jewish central Consistory Joel Mergui, second from right, and Pierre Cohen, mayor of Toulouse, right, in Toulouse, southwestern France, Monday, March 19, 2012. A motorcycle gunman opened fire Monday in front of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse, killing a rabbi, his two small sons and one other child, the prosecutor's office said. (Foto:Eric Cabanis, Pool/AP/dapd)

Sarkozy described the shootings as a "French tragedy"

The shooter reportedly filmed his victims with a hand-held camera, but the details remain unclear at the moment. Sarkozy's government has issued the country's highest terror alert, and all presidential candidates have postponed their campaign efforts as authorities work to clarify the details of the attack.

Call to the nation

And yet the top candidates of all French factions of parliament could be heard on Monday evening voicing their reactions to the attack, which Sarkozy described as a "French tragedy."

"All French citizens must come together," his opponent Francoise Hollande said in an interview broadcast on French TV. "For there is no place for desperation at a time like this. Seldom do we see such events that bind us together like this."

This choice of words can be seen as questionable. Sarkozy and his main rival are attempting to use the trusted concept of crisis management in their handling of the tragedy: Both are calling on the people of the "Grande Nation" to unite - in the face of the threat of an enemy from outside.

This depiction of a "healthy" nation that sticks together as one against the force of evil that threatens to infiltrate France can be seen, on the one hand, as a part of the French identity. On the other hand, however, it can also be seen as a particularly dangerous rhetoric - which has been instrumentalized by the French far-right in the past.

France's far right presidential candidate and National Front party President Marine Le Pen

Le Pen expressed "regret" at the shooting

The far-right "Front National" movement, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, makes use of this concept - manifested in their aggressive stance against foreigners. Le Pen's daughter, Marine, who is running for the French presidency this year, has also postponed her campaign in light of the events in Toulouse. On Monday, she publicly expressed her "regret" at the shooting.

History of French nationalism

French nationalism has its ideological roots in the Enlightenment era and came primarily from the French bourgeoisie of the time. Then, with the trial of Jewish general Alfred Dreyfus, an intellectual movement started whose first controversial discussions centered around the idea of the nation. After the Dreyfus affair, nationalism, which was originally an ideology inspired by the left demanding the right to an independent state, acquired right-wing tendencies.

In the 19th century the concept of the nation helped strengthen the French colonial state and demonstrate unity. The identification with French colonial culture becomes essential for the cohesion of an empire scattered across the globe. Its common language becomes almost too important in a "nation" spread across several continents.

The Enlightenment's ideal of the "citizen of the world," who is at ease in different cultures, is increasingly a threat to the French empire. Even today, French nationality is not determined by right of soil, not right of blood, as is the case in Germany. So, if you are born on French territory, you are French.

Police officers stand guard at the entrance of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school

The shooting at the Jewsih school killed three childen and a teacher

That's why in France, in particular, nationalism so explicitly influences the law as well as cultural and everyday affairs, compared with other European countries. The constitution stipulates that the nation takes precedence over the concerns of individuals. The way the French language is held up as a cultural treasure is unique in Europe. Education is about serving the nation, with France's network of elite universities and the ideal of a meritocracy deeply embedded in the country's culture. And the bloody lyrics of the national anthem, the Marsellaise, which call for non-French people to be gored, is drilled into every child at school.

It is still obvious today, especially in times of crisis, that the idea of the nation is regarded as the highest historical achievement, across the political spectrum. But the ideal can be used for very different political objectives.

Once France has got over the initial shock of the shooting and as soon as the perpetrator has been caught, it may be time for further analysis - as suggested by Socialist presidential hopeful Francois Hollande.

Author: Johanna Schmeller / glb, ng
Editor: Mark Hallam

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