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Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Nanterre murders become an election issue
Lionel Jospin (left) and Jacques Chirac (right) among mourners
Chirac and Jospin both attended memorial service
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By BBC News Online's Sheila Barter
In Nanterre, France

The faces of the dead beam out from black-bordered posters across Nanterre.

Four men, four women, smiling broadly. They are the officials and councillors who died in a hail of bullets as they wrapped up an ordinary late-night council meeting.

Poster showing the councillors who were killed
Eight councillors were killed in Nanterre
Beside each poster, a second smaller one has been added, also printed entirely in black.

It offers psychological help to those affected by the tragedy.

But when Richard Durn carried out his murderous attack, he may have inadvertently done more than unleash grief and tragedy in this pleasant Paris suburb.

It is just possible he has intervened decisively in the French presidential election.

The knife-edge battle between frontrunners Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac was already being fought largely on the issue of law and order.

Presidential race

As news of the Nanterre tragedy unfolded, both anti-crime crusaders rushed to the scene within hours, with almost unseemly haste.

Mr Jospin won the race - arriving before 0500. Mr Chirac was there by 0700, claiming his socialist prime minister had been tipped off by the socialist interior minister, deliberately leaving him in the dark for political reasons.

That sparked a furious response from the minister, who accused Mr Chirac of political profiteering.

Memorial service for those murders in Nanterre
Thousands attended the memorial service
It was clear that Nanterre was now an election issue - public property and not just private tragedy.

The controversial suicide in custody of Durn added more fuel to the fire.

Mr Jospin called it "unfortunate", the proverbial understatement of the year, and one that is believed to have lost him ground in the race.

Mr Chirac made a dramatic intervention on France's main TV station, TF1, declaring "our system did not function". He added that warning lights about Durn had been ignored for years.

Coast-to-coast election reports

  1. Calais unmoved by shorter week
  2. Nanterre murders become election issue
  3. Crime and the French voter
  4. Sleaze leaves voters cold

A week after the massacre, both presidential candidates were back in Nanterre, in their existing roles as president and prime minister.

They sat side by side, joining an estimated 14,000 citizens at an emotionally-charged memorial service for the victims.

The attack has presented the two men with the most delicate situation yet of the campaign.

Both have had to reflect the shock felt by the nation at such a brutal event.

Both have also had to look the most likely to be able to stop it happening again. And both have had to make sure they are not seen to be making political capital from a horrific event.

Jospin losing ground

Within a week of the massacre, a new opinion poll suggested Mr Chirac had clawed his way back to his first lead in the opinion polls for weeks.

He [Chirac] has come across as much more presidential, Mr Jospin started talking about democracy - Mr Chirac came across as much more concerned for the families

Nanterre resident
The survey by polling organisation Ipsos gave Chirac 51% of the second-round vote - a tiny advantage, and still smaller than the poll's margin of error, but the first of its kind nonetheless.

The value of political capital can, of course, go down as well as up.

Analysts were quick to warn that too much should not be read into the result.

Most other polls continue to show a slender lead for Mr Jospin.

In normal circumstances, of course, a massacre by a disturbed individual would play no part in a general debate on crime.

The aftermath

It is a point not lost on the residents of Nanterre, who have endured the arrival and departure of politicians and journalists - first after the attack, then after the service. Now they are left to deal with the aftermath.

"This is nothing to do with crime - it's the act of a madman," one woman told me. "It could have happened anywhere - for example much the same thing happened in Switzerland."

Flowers outside Nanterre town hall
A carpet of flowers has been left at the massacre scene

Other residents of the flats that surround the modern town hall where the tragedy unfolded echo this.

On a bench outside the flats, two elderly women sit as they have done for years, putting the world to rights. One clutches a small dog.

They agree that the act of a madman, however terrible, is not part of the crime debate.

An election issue

But there is also agreement between residents on two other key points.

Firstly, that Mr Chirac is trying to subtly benefit from the situation. And secondly, that he is succeeding.

"He has come across as much more presidential," one Nanterre mother told me, as she stopped to survey one of the posters of the dead.

"Mr Jospin started talking about democracy - Mr Chirac came across as much more concerned for the families."

Mr Chirac may have two trump cards after Nanterre - his stronger image on law and order, and his traditional role as a man of the people.

In contrast, Mr Jospin comes across as more formal and intellectual.

The tragedy of Nanterre allows Mr Chirac to play both cards.

If Mr Chirac can avoid over-playing it, then Richard Durn may just have dealt him a winning hand.

BBC News Online's Sheila Barter is writing a series of features from around France on the main issues in the upcoming presidential elections.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Europe
Paris gunman commits suicide
27 Mar 02 | Europe
Witnesses describe calm killer
27 Mar 02 | Europe
Eight dead in Paris shooting
29 Oct 01 | Europe
French rail worker in gun rampage
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: France
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