France’s southwestern region was put on the highest terror alert as a massive search began for the man who killed four people at a Jewish school yesterday and three military personnel of Arab descent last week.
The area’s alert was raised to “scarlet,” the first time in France such as level was reached. The whole country has been under a ‘red” rating since the London bombings in July 2005. Scarlet allows security forces to close schools, public transport and tunnels.
“We’ve stepped up control at all schools,” Olivier Dugrip, the academic rector of Toulouse, said in an interview on BFM television.
The school killings were the deadliest attacks on a Jewish target in France since 1982. The spree left a 17-year-old Jewish student seriously injured and a black soldier in a coma. The same weapon was used in all the attacks, President Nicolas Sarkozy said last night.
All the major candidates in France’s presidential election have suspended their campaign. Sarkozy, Socialist challenger Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Francois Fillon appeared together last night at a service at a Paris synagogue. They had all been in Toulouse earlier in the day. The first round of the presidential vote is April 22.
Sarkozy said last night that 120 detectives are in Toulouse and 14 units of military police have been sent to the area to protect all Jewish and Muslim houses of worship and schools.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant, whose ministry oversees law-enforcement agencies, and Defense Minister Gerard Longuet are both in Toulouse to oversee the investigation.
The killer may have filmed his own attack, Gueant said. An eye witness said the killer had a camera attached to his neck, he said.
“It adds one more element to the profile of the killer,” Gueant said. “He was filming his cruelty to watch it again or to post it” on the web.
Three soldiers who were expelled in 2008 for neo-Nazi activities from the 17th parachute regiment -- which is based in Montauban, site of one of last week’s attacks -- had been earlier among the potential suspects.
They were deemed to not have been involved after they were interviewed by the police, Le Point reported, citing Reuters, which got its information from unidentified investigating officers. The three soldiers had been in the same regiment that two of the dead soldiers belonged to.
Sarkozy met today with Jewish and Muslim leaders, including Gilles Bernheim, the chief rabbi of France, and Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris mosque. All schools in France observed a minute of silence at 11 a.m.
“It happened with students at a Jewish school but it could have happened here,” Sarkozy said at a public school near a monument to French citizens who helped shield Jews during World War II. “These children were exactly like you.”
Richard Prasquier, head of the CRIF, France’s largest Jewish lobby, said the attack had nothing to with the sometime heated exchanges in France’s electoral campaign.
“Nobody grabs a kid by the hair so he can put a bullet in her head because he heard something about religious slaughter of animals,” said Prasquier, referring to a dispute about Halal meat being served in French schools. “There is no link.”
Everything had been removed from Sarkozy’s campaign website except the statement: “Faced with a national tragedy I suspend my presidential campaign until at least Wednesday.”
Hollande, following Sarkozy, 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 rally today, saying on RMC radio that he hoped no candidates use the killings as a “tool” in the campaign.
While Hollande leads Sarkozy in all polls before an expected May 6 run-off between the two, surveys show that most French think Sarkozy is more able than Hollande on security issues.
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.
The killer, who escaped on a scooter after randomly shooting people at the school, had two weapons and fired at “everything in sight,” Michel Valet, the state prosecutor for Toulouse, told reporters yesterday.
A rabbi and his two boys, three- and-six-years of age, 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 teacher had recently arrived from Israel and the bodies will be returned there for burial, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
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.
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.