Robert Zaretsky: Toulouse Tragedy Shows Rhetoric's Danger

Roundup: Historians' Take

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the Honors College at the University of Houston. The author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010), he most recently a contributor to “The Occupy Handbook” (Little, Brown).

Now that France’s nightmare seems to be ending, its many interpretations have begun. As I write, a Frenchman of Algerian descent has claimed responsibility for the horrific murders of French soldiers and a teacher and children at a local Sephardic Jewish school. He identified himself as a member of Al Qaeda, reportedly traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and even though he’s only 23, has been under surveillance for years. He justified his systematic killing spree as revenge for the deaths of innocent Palestinian and Afghan children.

These reports seem to contradict the interpretations that followed in the wake of the shootings in Toulouse on March 19, that these murderous acts made sense only when placed in the context of French politics. I still believe that’s the right way to understand this horror.

With just five weeks left before national elections, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party seemed condemned to a second-, or even third-place finish. Burdened by a comatose economy and his second banana role to Germany’s Angela Merkel, Sarkozy has watched his popularity tank. (And not just in France: According to a Europe-wide poll, the French president is the least liked leader among Europe’s five most important economies.)...

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