Even before Mohammed Merah — a 23-year-old French punk and part-time garage mechanic turned jihadist — died in a hail of bullets in Toulouse, the horrific affair had already become the focus of France’s heated presidential campaign.

No one benefited more from the crisis than President Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom law and order has always been a calling card. But after acting admirably presidential during the most ghastly moments of the crisis, calling for national unity and a temporary halt to electioneering, once Merah had been disposed of Sarkozy abruptly reverted to the erratic manner that has also been his hallmark over the years.

He announced his intention to present legislation to the French Parliament that would make it a crime for people to travel abroad for terrorist indoctrination or consult jihadist websites.

Predictably, Sarkozy’s tough proposal immediately drew fire from a wide range of critics.

As I argued in a Daily Beast post, Sarkozy’s proposals are precipitous, and, above all, a dangerous threat to French civil liberties. Punishing people who — for whatever reason –choose to read the contents of certain proscribed Internet sites, would, in effect, oblige France to create a new category of law enforcers very much akin to the Thought Police so terrifyingly portrayed by George Orwell in “1984.”

France already has enough laws on the books to deal with the terrorist threat without crippling its democratic traditions.

Another tack taken by Sarkozy, this time to hobble his opponents on the left, is to wrap himself in the national flag and maintain — as Sarkozy immediately did — that it is despicable for anyone to blame French society for the outrageous actions of Merah and the obscene rampage in Toulouse.

Sarkozy’s challenge is a blatant attempt to sweep France’s enormous social problems — particularly the integration of the country’s 5 to 6 million immigrants of Islamic origin — under the carpet, at least during the election campaign. It was also a bet that the French, outraged by the events of the past few days, would turn against any attempts by Sarkozy’s opponents to take up the issue of integration at this time.

Indeed Sarkozy’s theme was immediately amplified by four deputies from his Union for a Popular Movement party who called for revision of the French Code of Nationality. They’re after regulations that would make it easier to dispatch the hordes of delinquents and troublemakers in the banlieues (working-class suburbs), like Merah, (“scum,” Sarkozy once famously called them) back to the lands of their forefathers.

After all, the UMP deputies argue, the only thing about Merah “that was French were his identity papers.”

The statement is absurd. As the leftist Libération editorialized recently, “Merah is certainly a monster, but a French monster and monsters also reveal the fabric of a country. For how many generations can a child born French be sent back to his Algerian origins, and for how many generations will the origin of his ancestors make him a foreigner in the country that is his?”

For further background, readers might be interested in other blogs I’ve written over the past few days on Merah and the slaughter in Toulouse.

Barry M. Lando spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is just finishing a novel, “The Watchman’s File.”

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