RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In France today, police have arrested more than a dozen suspected Islamist militants. The crackdown came in the wake of a string of murders - a rabbi, three Jewish children and three soldiers all killed by a young Frenchman of Algerian descent. That tragedy has put immigration front and center in a presidential campaign that was already heated. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: One week after the massacre outside the Jewish school in Toulouse, the actions of 23-year-old Muslim extremist Mohamed Merah dominate television debates and cafe conversations. And issues of security and immigration have replaced jobs and the economy on the campaign trail. Far right National Front Party candidate Marine Le Pen has unabashedly blurred the lines between terrorism and immigration as she toughens her rhetoric.
MARINE LE PEN: (Through translator) How many Mohamed Merahs are in the planes and the boats that arrive in France every day filled with immigrants? How many Mohamed Merahs are among the unassimilated immigrants living in total rupture with French values?
BEARDSLEY: Now, some Muslims here, like Parisian Ben Cheri, say they fear a backlash.
BEN CHERI: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: You can't confuse an Islamist with a Muslim, he says. God forbids the killing of innocents. We wholly condemn his crimes.
France has Western Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities. French Jews have also been shaken by the tragedy. But there has been an outpouring of public outrage and solidarity. Silent marches in Paris and Toulouse led by rabbis and imams walking arm in arm attracted thousands of people. Some marchers carried signs in French, Hebrew and Arabic calling for fraternite. Marek Halter is a prominent French-Jewish writer.
MAREK HALTER: (Through translator) It's important to see all the people out here together. The anger is so huge that people had to come out. France is together today.
BEARDSLEY: French President Nicolas Sarkozy said French Muslims were clearly not responsible for the acts of a madman. He noted that Merah also targeted Muslim soldiers. The French president ridiculed Le Pen's parallel between the killer and immigration, pointing out that Merah was born and raised in France. Sarkozy has chosen to focus on security.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: In a fiery speech over the weekend, the president told the crowd that his socialist opponent, Francois Hollande, had voted against French terror laws. He promised that if he were re-elected, tough new measures would go on the books. Sarkozy has proposed jail time for repeat visitors to websites preaching hatred and for those who go abroad for what he calls extremist indoctrination.
SARKOZY: (Through translator) Talking about terrorism, jihad, and violence is not a matter of discussing an opinion. These ideas should be forbidden on French soil and we will fight them.
BEARDSLEY: The socialist front runner, Francois Hollande, asked how Merah could have obtained such an arsenal when handguns are illegal in France. And he called Sarkozy's law and order record a failure. There have been questions about whether French intelligence missed clues about Merah early on. Still, commentators have praised Sarkozy's handling of the tragedy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BEARDSLEY: Standing next to the flag-draped coffins of the three soldiers at a funeral last week, Sarkozy appeared dignified and presidential. In a moving speech he said the killer had not brought France to its knees as he intended.
SARKOZY: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Just two months ago, Sarkozy lagged well behind Hollande. Now polls show the two contenders neck and neck for the April 22nd first round vote in what is now one of the tightest presidential races many say they can remember.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news, Paris.