The World from Berlin 'France Is United in Mourning' After Toulouse

The manhunt for the Toulouse killer reached its climax on Wednesday as French police put a suspect under siege in an apartment building there. The man reportedly said he acted to "avenge Palestinian children." German commentators ponder how the murders will affect the French election campaign.


The murders of three children and one adult at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday shocked France. Meanwhile, the revelation that the same perpetrator had apparently also killed three soldiers in the preceding days created a climate of intense fear. On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the terror alert in the region to its highest level as police launched a massive manhunt.

On Wednesday, the search reached its climax as police held the suspected killer under siege in a Toulouse flat. The 24-year-old man has been identified as Mohammed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent. The man, who has apparently been under observation by French intelligence for years, claims to belong to al-Qaida, according to French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, who was at the scene. The suspect had apparently said he acted to "avenge Palestinian children." According to French authorities, the man had visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was apparently motivated by anger at the French military over its foreign missions.

The area around the apartment building has been cordoned off, and police were negotiating with the man on Wednesday morning. He is said to be armed with an AK-47 rifle and other weapons. The siege followed a dawn raid on the building which turned into a firefight that left three police officers wounded. The man's brother was also arrested in Toulouse.

Campaign Suspended

The man is suspected of two earlier attacks as well as the school shooting. One French paratrooper was killed in Toulouse on March 11, and two other paratroopers were killed in an attack on March 15 in Montauban, where one soldier was also injured. The suspect drove a motorcycle and used the same gun in all three attacks.

The main candidates in France's presidential election temporarily suspended campaigning in reaction to Monday's school shooting. The series of attacks looks set to become a campaign issue, however. On Wednesday, Sarkozy said that France should not give way to discrimination or vengeance in the aftermath of the shootings.

A memorial service for the three dead soldiers was due to be held in Montauban on Wednesday. Sarkozy will attend, as will Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front.

On Wednesday, German commentators discuss the significance of the attacks for France.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"For a couple of days, political life in France is at a standstill. The election campaign has (almost) gone quiet, and most of the presidential candidates have asserted their commitment to France's shared values in a republican consensus. The massacre at a Jewish school in Toulouse and the killing of three soldiers in the region has united the nation in mourning."

"Democracy depends on the fact that it goes on even under a temporary state of emergency. The campaign will therefore soon continue, and that's a good thing. It would be even better if some issues that have made waves in recent weeks were to be suppressed in future. For example, Nicolas Sarkozy and Interior Minister Guéant had sparked a debate about the slaughter of animals that had met with disapproval even within his own party because it was aimed primarily at Muslim immigrants, but also affected French Jews. It is impossible to judge if and to what degree the Toulouse murders will change the mood before we know the identity of the perpetrator. But one thing already seems clear: Domestic security, a favorite topic in election campaigns, will be high on the agenda."

The center-left Der Tagesspiegel writes:

"Thinking about what turn the campaign may now take in reaction to the killings in southern France might seem cynical. But that doesn't change the fact that, four weeks before the first ballot, the political debate is suddenly taking place under changed circumstances. The brutal series of attacks is not just a matter for the prosecutor's office -- it also forces France's political class to respond. And Sarkozy's opponent, Hollande, finds himself on the defensive."

"Sarkozy now sees himself in a role as the leader of an unsettled nation who has to support the French and make sure the crimes are solved. After a campaign that for a long time left Sarkozy lagging behind, there is now real pressure on the president to act."

"Sarkozy's compatriots are waiting for the bloody deeds of Toulouse and Montauban to be cleared up now. It is natural that their attention is focused on the president. But what effect that will have on voters' behavior in the upcoming election is another matter."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The series of murders occurred in the middle of the French presidential campaign. ... Candidates on the right had been doing their best to heat up the debate. Interior Minister Claude Guéant recently mused about the superiority of Western civilization. The National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, launched a polemic about halal and kosher meats. Nicolas Sarkozy immediately joined in, trying to kick off a new debate about 'national identity' and promising to halve the number of immigrants. Sarkozy, who is the son of an immigrant father and a mother of Greek Jewish descent, is not a racist. But he likes to play with nationalist fires and has been blowing vigorously into the flames. That gets the political atmosphere heated up."

"It also raises the question: Can this mood, which is partly an artificial one whipped up for the elections, lead an insane person to commit murders? One must be very careful with assuming there is a causal relationship between election rhetoric and such irrational acts. But one thing is certain: Now, in the aftermath of the attacks, the same candidates who were earlier fanning the flames will organize police protection for religious places of worship and decree a national moment of silence."

In his regular column for the mass circulation Bild, Franz Josef Wagner writes:

"A devil in black on a scooter shot and killed three children and a religion teacher in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse. Four Jewish people lay in their own blood. Nobody knows if the perpetrator on the scooter is a Nazi or a racist."

"To me, he's just inhuman. A zombie. A zombie like the Zwickau band of killers (in Germany). Zombies kill mercilessly. But how can you protect yourself from zombies like that? God, if I only knew."

-- David Gordon Smith


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