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Will shootings affect French election?

By Agnes Poirier, special to CNN
March 30, 2012 -- Updated 1024 GMT (1824 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French election campaign suspended in the wake of shootings in Toulouse and Montauban
  • Latest polls suggest the attacks have had little effect on the elections so far
  • Education and unemployment remain top priorities for French voters, says Agnes Poirier
  • Poirier: Candidates have four weeks to answer people's questions and stop bickering over non-issues

Editor's note: Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, France and Italy. Follow her on Twitter @AgnesCPoirier

Paris (CNN) -- Re-election to the Elysée Palace was looking like mission impossible for President Nicolas Sarkozy: Trailing far behind the socialist candidate François Hollande in the polls for months, Sarkozy had only just recently narrowed his rival's lead, but only at the price of a pugnacious and robust few weeks of campaigning, exploiting the extreme right's favorite themes, immigration and halal meat.

Then tragedy struck in the streets of southwestern France, in the otherwise picturesque towns of Montauban and Toulouse.

The killing spree of a homegrown terrorist, radicalized in French prisons and trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, acted like a jolt: Here was a Frenchman executing his compatriots at point blank range -- among them, little children aged three to eight -- in the name of Allah.

The election campaign stopped in its tracks, time seemed suspended. For three days, candidate Sarkozy became President again. French police reacted swiftly once the means were put into the investigation. The killer was identified, found and shot down after a 32-hour siege during which terrorist Mohammed Merah first said he would surrender and then swore to kill as many policemen as possible.

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During those three days, French media kept quiet, didn't ask difficult questions, they were mainly processing the shock felt by the whole country. Never had France's children been harmed in a school before. In France, a school is a sacrosanct place at the heart of the French republic, the place where children become citizens.

Nicolas Sarkozy didn't waste much time. A few hours after Mohammed Merah was gunned down, he had traded his official clothes for that of the candidate's. At a political rally, he uttered the strongest words yet. He said it was immoral to ask questions surrounding Mohamed Merah's radicalization in France. The man was a monster and that was it.

The questions now are: Have the events in Toulouse changed the course and direction of the presidential elections?

The latest polls, carried out two days after the end of the siege, show that the events in Toulouse have not radically changed the situation.

Nicolas Sarkozy has only gained half a point, at 28% of expected votes on the first round of the elections, with François Hollande down by half a point at 27.5%. The socialist candidate would still win with ease at the second round. Marine Le Pen loses half a point, at 16.5%, while hard left Jean-Luc Mélenchon overtakes Centrist François Bayrou for the first time, with 13% of expected votes at the first round, leaving Bayrou behind on 11.5%.

Those polls seem to show that the French make a distinction between Sarkozy the president and Sarkozy the candidate. While 55% approve of his actions and tone during the events in Toulouse, they still reject him as a candidate.

The polls also show that security isn't really people's top priority, with only 8% of them listing it as their main concern.

Education and unemployment remain the top priorities of French people, both before and after the shootings in Montauban and Toulouse.

Strangely, very few candidates have elaborated on the economy. There have been a few announcements, such as François Hollande's promise to tax 75% of incomes above the 1 million euro mark, which 61% of the French approve of, and to create 60,000 jobs in the education sector, but apart from vague wording on how to try and cut the budget deficit, the campaign has mainly focused on the robust exchanges between camps and a controversy about halal meat.

This has so far been a disappointment to the French who were expecting more substance on topics which matter to them.

A recent poll has showed that the electoral turnout risks being one of the lowest since 1958 and the beginning of the Fifth Republic. In 2007, turnout was one of the highest, with 87% of voters turning out to cast their ballot at the second round of the elections.

The 10 candidates to the French presidency have four weeks left to finally answer the people's questions. And to stop bickering over non-issues such as halal meat.

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