Violence In France Highlights Deeper Political Issues

A school shooting in France has highlighted issues of immigration and racism in the current presidential election campaign, though there's no suggestion as of yet that the shooting and the political rhetoric are connected.

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French officials are vowing to catch a gunman responsible for seven killings in less than a week, in and around the city of Toulouse. And authorities have released new details about the attacks. All seven victims, including three Jewish children, were shot in the head at close range. The shootings have shocked France, right in the middle of a presidential campaign in which issues of race and religion have been prominent.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Toulouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Today, this school in the center of Toulouse, like thousands of others across France, observed a minute of silence for the seven people killed in the last 10 days by a lone gunman. In all three instances, the killer shot his victims at point blank range before speeding off on a motorcycle. Yesterday, the attacker murdered a father, his two tiny children and an 8-year-old girl at a Jewish school. Last week, he gunned down three Muslim soldiers outside their military base.

Speaking this morning, Toulouse Mayor Pierre Cohen echoed what is on everyone's mind.

MAYOR PIERRE COHEN: (Through Translator) Given that the paratroopers attacked outside their base were Muslims and of one was of Caribbean origin, I fear this killer's only motive is racism and anti-Semitism.

BEARDSLEY: The killings, which occurred less than two months before the first round of the French presidential election, brought the campaigning to a full stop. Candidates cancelled planned television debates and rallies and headed for Toulouse. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who suspended his campaign at least through tomorrow, was the first to arrive.

NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Through Translator) France is deeply shaken. Someone has killed soldiers, children and a teacher. This odious act will not go unpunished, and we will use every means at our disposal to catch this criminal.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy has asked the French people to stand together against hate. But analysts and the Socialist Party say the French right has been busy stirring up divisions and hatred on the campaign trail over the past few months.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTORS)

MARINE LE PEN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen never misses a chance to tell her supporters that immigration is the main cause of France's social and moral decline. Recently, she started a debate about Halal ritual meat slaughter. French Muslims say it's all about stoking Islamophobia. Looking to draw Le Pen voters, Sarkozy has underscored his hard line on immigration. He recently declared that France had too many foreigners.

One Muslim organization called the killings a message for Sarkozy to stop playing with fire. A Green Party candidate tweeted that the current climate of hatred could be energizing for extremists.

But political analyst Dominique Moisy says making a connection between the campaign and the killings right now is going too far.

DOMINIQUE MOISY: I think one should be extremely prudent before linking what may be the result of the madness of a man and - to political background of a given country at a given time.

BEARDSLEY: Moisy points to Norway, which he describes as very tolerant when it comes to immigration and yet, a lone gunman went on a rampage there, killing scores of people there last summer.

France has Europe's largest Jewish community and Western Europe's largest Muslim population. Today, Sarkozy met with leaders from both groups in an effort to calm their fears.

In Toulouse last night, the main synagogue was packed for a memorial. Hundreds of people, Jews and non-Jews, stood in the overflow crowd outside on the street.

The support has been tremendous, says Salomon Attia, who works with one of France's main Jewish organization.

SALOMON ATTIA: (Through Translator) I am proud to be French today. The politicians are by our side, and there is a huge outpouring of support and solidarity across the country.

BEARDSLEY: Another frightening detail emerged in the killer's profile today. He apparently was wearing a video camera around his neck to record his actions.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Toulouse.

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