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The attack at a Jewish school that killed four people, including three children, derailed France’s presidential campaign and may calm the candidates’ rhetoric five weeks before election day.
President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, along with Prime Minister Francois Fillon, appeared together last night at a service at a Paris synagogue. The two leading candidates canceled campaign appearances yesterday and today to fly to Toulouse and visit the school, Ozar Hatorah, where the attack took place. Sarkozy announced a minute of silence in all French schools today.
The shooting was the worst attack on a Jewish target in France since 1982 and followed similar assaults last week that left three soldiers dead and a fourth soldier in a critical condition in Toulouse and nearby Montauban. Two of the soldiers were Muslims of North African descent, and one was black. The same weapon was used in all attacks, and the French prosecutor’s office said the shootings will be investigated together as “acts of terrorism.”
“It will be hard for the candidates to insult each other so eagerly,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “Any return to the nastiness and the wedge issues that we’ve seen so far will be much harder for the French to accept.”
Sarkozy is suspending all campaign activities until at least March 21, he said in a televised statement. “This is a national tragedy,” Sarkozy said. “All possible means will be used to put this criminal out of action.”
He plans to meet with Jewish and Muslim community leaders, including Gilles Bernheim, the chief rabbi of France, and Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris mosque.
Hollande visited the school in Toulouse yesterday, saying “the anti-Semitic character of this attack is as evident as it is awful. I must be here to express my solidarity.” He canceled a television appearance last night and a campaign rally today.
Anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen, whose father Jean- Marie was condemned by a French court in 1991 for denying the Holocaust, also suspended her campaign. “In a moment like this there is no politics, no right, no left, just a French people that’s touched to its heart,” she said in a press conference in Paris. Francois Bayrou, a centrist politician who is running fourth in the polls, also visited Toulouse.
Effect on Voting?
While the killing led to uninterrupted coverage on all television news stations, they are unlikely to affect how people vote in the first round of the presidential in five weeks, said Frederic Dabi, director general of polling company Ifop.
“There will be strong emotions, anger, and a sense of insecurity because it involves children, but it shouldn’t fundamentally alter the primacy of economic concerns in this election,” Dabi said in an interview. “Any increase in interest in security will be short-lived, not long-term. It’s hard to see how it can transform the prism of preoccupations of the French, which are about the economy and jobs.”
While Sarkozy trails in all voter surveys ahead of the likely May 6 run-off against Hollande, the French by a 58 to 39 percent margin rate him better than his Socialist challenger on security issues, according an Ifop poll. The same poll showed that security was a major issue for 15 percent of voters, behind the economic crisis at 50 percent, unemployment at 46 percent, and government debt at 32 percent.
The Ifop poll for Le Monde involved 4,728 people questioned from Feb. 16 to 21.
The killer, who escaped on a scooter after randomly shooting people at the school this morning, had two weapons and fired at “everything in sight,” Michel Valet, the state prosecutor for Toulouse, told reporters.
A teacher and his two children, aged three and six, and the eight-year-old daughter of the school’s director were killed. A 17-year-old youngster was seriously hurt and is in critical condition.
The three children killed weren’t students at the school and were shot while waiting for a ride to their own primary school. A security film at the school shows that the killer grabbed one of the children by the hair before shooting her, school officials said.
“She was a little flower,” Yvan Levy, who dined with the family of the school’s director yesterday, said of the eight- year-old who was killed. “It’s clear the man doesn’t have a conscience. He can’t distinguish good from evil.”
The soldiers were killed on March 11 in Toulouse and on March 15 in Montauban, 30 miles away. In all three attacks, the helmeted attacker arrived and left on the same stolen scooter. Yesterday’s killer was a medium-sized man of European descent, witnesses told France2 television.
Dubois said Sarkozy could be hurt if it turns out police missed any chances to arrest the killer. “Anything dysfunctional on the part of the police would look bad for Sarkozy, who has always stressed his security credentials,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working with European authorities to monitor developments in the shooting, said a department official, who didn’t have authorization to publicly talk about the effort and declined to be identified.
The department is examining potential threats in the U.S., including those against the Jewish community, the official said. Currently, there are no specific threats to locations in the U.S., the official said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org; Andrea Rothman in Paris at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at firstname.lastname@example.org