What did French president Nicolas Sarkozy ever do to the New York Times to incur such outsized wrath?
In a line of attack reminiscent of the Times' sordid attempt to link the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to the conservative movement, Paris bureau chief Steven Erlanger on Wednesday used the killings at a Jewish school in France ("Killings Could Stall Elections' Nationalist Turn") to suggest Sarkozy's tough-on-immigration re-election campaign rhetoric could be contributing to a violent anti-immigrant mood in France.
The Jewish school in Toulouse that was terrorized by an unknown gunman on a motorbike will reopen on Wednesday as a statement of courage and continuity. The hundreds of mourners who filled the stone courtyard of the palatial redbrick town hall there on Tuesday morning, joining others across the country in a moment of silence, will return grimly to their daily lives.
But the political debate around the shootings, and whether the deaths of an instructor and three young children were somehow inspired by anti-immigrant political talk, is likely to continue -- both as a weapon in the presidential campaign and as a more general soul-searching about the nature of France.
No one is suggesting that the French presidential campaign inspired a serial killer to put a bullet in the head of an 8-year-old Jewish girl. The candidates largely suspended their campaigning and uniformly condemned the killings, as well as the murders of three French soldiers -- two Muslims and a black man -- apparently by the same man.
But in a period of economic anxiety, high unemployment and concerns about the war in Afghanistan and radical Islam, the far right in Europe has made considerable gains, even in essentially liberal democratic countries like Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and France.
And in the middle of a long and heated presidential campaign, with President Nicolas Sarkozy trying to win back disaffected supporters who have drifted to the far-right National Front party, the shootings at Toulouse have raised new questions about the tone and tenor of the debate here about what it is to be French.
François Bayrou, a centrist presidential candidate who came in third in the 2007 election, touched off the debate on Monday night. He criticized the tone of the campaign, especially from Mr. Sarkozy, who is running to the right to try to ensure that he survives the first round of voting on April 22. The top two finishers will meet in a runoff on May 6, and the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, has been leading in most polls.
The murder of children “because of their origin, of the religion of their family,” is linked, Mr. Bayrou said, “to a growing climate of intolerance.” In a speech in Grenoble, he said: “I believe this kind of madness has roots in the state of a society, and in French society this kind of attack, of acts, is multiplying. There is a degree of violence and of stigmatization in the French society that is growing, and it is unacceptable."
For a reporter who claimed "No one is suggesting that the French presidential campaign inspired" the murder of schoolgirls, Erlanger certainly dwells on Sarkozy's policy positions on immigrants. Former Paris bureau chief Elaine Sciolino treated Sarkozy with similar contempt, not even bothering to hide her hostility.
There is no question that Mr. Sarkozy has made appeals throughout his political career to French anxieties about crime and foreigners, and this campaign has been no exception.
During the last weeks, Mr. Sarkozy, trailing in the polls, has returned to some of the same themes, saying there are “too many foreigners in France,” calling for tighter controls on immigration and a cut in the number of foreigners allowed to become French, and arguing against special treatment for minorities in public places and schools. He said that no one should get special meals, that boys and girls should swim together, and, controversially, that meat that was butchered to be halal in the Muslim tradition should be labeled that way. His numbers improved markedly in a poll after he began the offensive, bringing him into a virtual tie with Mr. Hollande.
But the events in Toulouse may change the nature of the campaign.
Or so the Times hopes.