A Year After Merah: Hollande Attends Ceremony in Toulouse

Pierre Cohen, mayor of Toulouse. Photo: Flickr.com/Guillaume Paumier

Pierre Cohen, mayor of Toulouse.
Photo: Flickr.com/Guillaume Paumier

PARIS. – On March 17, François Hollande was in Toulouse for the first anniversary of Mohammed Merah’s murders in the French southern cities of Montauban and Toulouse. The French president delivered a speech that was not as conventional as expected, with many political implications.

In  Toulouse’s main square, mayor Pierre Cohen, and François Hollande delivered speeches commemorating a series of killings committed by Mohammed Merah in March 2012. Merah shot three children, three military officers, and one rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse. The events drew compassion and criticism from the entire country, making the remote danger of terrorism appear as an inner threat.

Cohen, after stating that “on this day … our fundamental values were attacked,” praised the spirit of Toulouse which has “the history of a pacifist culture, full of tolerance.” Cohen highlighted that Toulouse, the second largest student city in the country, “draws its force from its youth,” in a “warm city, open, welcoming and enriched by immigration.” Talking about Merah and the intolerance his actions revealed, Cohen simply said that “this is not the real Toulouse.”

After Cohen’s speech, a group of 7 children (for the seven victims) from Toulouse read a few stanzas from Kipling’s poem “If,” beginning with: “[If you can] watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools,” words, well chosen, which sounded like they were designed for the citizens of Toulouse this day.

In his speech, Hollande praised the way “the Republic held on and went through the struggle” successfully. He also highlighted that France had managed to gather itself around former President Nicolas Sarkozy and mentioned several times that representatives of all the different religions were present together for this ceremony. Hollande then stated that “democracy is stronger that fanaticism,” and that its “values never bend before sorrow.”

The second part of his speech took a more political tone. Hollande paid tribute to Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of Merah’s first victim, specifically commending her will to spread tolerance in many meetings she organized in the French suburbs, where Merah’s actions sometimes received support from immigrant communities. It was a good opportunity for Hollande to defend the virtues of education, and make a few hints at the current education reforms, led by the Minister Vincent Peillon.

Hollande condemned the growing anti-semitism in France, which he described as a paradox, since violent acts like Merah’s should banish anti-semitism from the public place. That’s why Hollande restated that freedom of speech had to be limited on social networks like Twitter, and that calls for hate or murder (which are not protected by the freedom of speech in France) should be condemned. “The internet, as a space for freedom, must not be used, in any case, to promote hatred,” he said. Thus, Hollande supported the decision made by several judges to force those social networking companies to give the names of suspected users.

Regarding terrorism, “this blind violence and cold ignominy,” Hollande pledged that the current inquiry on Merah’s case would answer to concerns of what constitutes a proper handling of potential terrorist threats. To act in the future, the French president announced his intention to reform intelligence, an indirect criticism toward Sarkozy’s government, which is sometimes criticized for a previous, too hasty reform.

Eventually, Hollande connected Merah’s story to the French commitment in Mali. According to Hollande, fighting terrorism at home and abroad are not separate tasks. The intervention in Mali would be justified to avoid other cases like Merah’s on French soil, preventing new centers of terrorist training to appear, a danger which he said threatens to “spread all over Europe.”

This ceremony happened at a convenient time for Hollande. Indeed, with the announcement of the fifth death of a soldier in Mali the same day, many questions about the French commitment there and a constant drop in popularity for Hollande, the French commander-in-chief needs to give to French foreign policy a new direction.


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