The shooting deaths of three French children and a rabbi at an orthodox Jewish school in Toulouse today seems timed for maximum impact and shock value, coming in the midst of a French national election that has raised issues of security and national identity.
The killings are the worst suffered by France's small Jewish community in decades and the impact here is being compared to the Columbine High School shootings in the United States in 1999 or last summer's massacre of Norwegian youth at a youth political camp.
In Paris, silent protesters are marching from Republic Square to the Bastille tonight. The leading candidates for president, current leader President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger François Hollande, suspended their campaigns to travel to Tolouse and denounced the murders. They will also refrain from campaigning on Tuesday.
With ballistics reports linking today's incident at the local Ozar Hatorah Jewish school school to two grisly slayings earlier this month that killed a total of three ethnic north African French paratroopers in the same region, the French are confounded by what the intended message of the killings is.
French police in southwestern France have deployed hundreds of officers in one of the largest manhunts in France in recent memory.
The seemingly disparate targets in the three incidents are difficult for police to connect the dots on: Jewish, military, and ethnic minority. Authorities say it may be significant that the slain paratroopers' unit fought in Afghanistan.
Whether it was a lone killer, as in last year's shooting spree in Arizona aimed at former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, or a plot involving several individuals, perhaps from Pakistan or Afghanistan, is unclear. Some Paris sources familiar with political extremism told the Monitor the work is likely that of a small radical sect on the right or left, possibly Aryan, with a score to settle.
Parisian magazine Le Point offered one of the more provocative ideas in the short life of the incident: The elite 17th French paratroop division in Montauban, near Toulouse – of which the three killed paratroopers were a part – has a history of neo-Nazi and fascist sentiment. Several troops were drummed out of the division in 2008 after an investigation and after the Parisian magazine Canard Enchaine published photos of them giving the Nazi salute set against a backdrop of swastikas.
Catherine de Wenden, a leading French social scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, says she doubts the gunman was aligned with either the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, who has made waves during the election season with derogatory comments about Islamic practices and immigration, or with a Palestinian group settling a Middle East score, as some have suggested.
“The National Front prides itself on good ties with the French military and support of the French Army,” Ms. De Wenden said in an interview today. “The Palestinians in France are an elite group and historically they have been defended by French troops, and these are elite forces themselves. I don’t see that. The possibilities are too numerous and we just don’t know yet.”
Mr. Sarkozy flew immediately to Toulouse and met France’s senior Jewish representative, Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim. He also called for a national moment of silence tomorrow at 11 a.m. and the government stepped up protective measures around all Jewish learning institutions.
Toulouse is home to the largest Jewish community in France. The Ozar Hatorah complex was established in 1983. The school, whose name translates to “treasure of the Torah” in Hebrew is distinguished for a 100 percent graduation rate. It is part of a network of 13 orthodox Jewish schools in France that have their roots in educational institutions founded in modern-day Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, partly with US Jewish contributions.
Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, who was killed along with two of his children and another student, came to Ozar Hatorah as a rabbi and teacher from Israel last September.
Israeli authorities today asked French authorities "to shed full light on this tragedy and bring the perpetrators to justice." Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggested that rising nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric in the current French election fanned hatred. At least one expert contacted, however, felt it would not have mattered whether there was an election taking place or not, but that the election backdrop was manipulated to amplify the horrific deed.
A ballistics report from the French police links the 11.43 caliber weapon used at Ozar Hatorah to two earlier fatal shootings, one on March 1 and one on March 15. On March 11, French soldier Imad Ibn-Ziater arranged to meet with a man he exchanged emails with in order to sell his Suzuki motor-scooter and was later found dead. French newspaper Figaro reported Mr. Ibn-Ziater's ethnicity was probably not initially known to the buyer, and said police were looking for internet clues.
On March 15 three French soliders, two with familiar North African or Arabic names, were standing at a shopping center ATM in Montaubanwhen they were shot from a distance. The shooter then ran up to two of the men and emptied more than 15 rounds. Two of the three were killed and the third remains in hospital in critical condition. A witness who briefly saw the face of the killer did not report it as a dark-skinned face.