French campaign on hold after shooting

2012-03-19 22:08

Paris - France effectively put its election campaign on hold on Monday after a gunman killed three children and a teacher at a Jewish school and candidates set politics aside to condemn the shocking attack.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist frontrunner in the presidential race, Francois Hollande, both cancelled campaign events and rushed to the southwestern city of Toulouse.

Speaking at the scene of the killings, Sarkozy announced a minute of silence in all French schools on Tuesday and said the state would throw its full weight behind the investigation.

"We should not back down in the face of terror," Sarkozy said, his voice cracking.

"You cannot murder children like this on the territory of the Republic without being held to account," he said. "Today is a day of national tragedy."

"I want to say to all the leaders of the Jewish community, how close we feel to them. All of France is at their side," he said.

Hollande, also at the scene, called for the country to unite after the shooting.

"We must do everything to ensure that acts of anti-Semitism or racism are met with a firm and common response from the whole Republic," he said.

In an earlier statement Hollande said he was going to Toulouse to show "solidarity with the families and France's Jewish community."

Anti-Semitic act

"This act, whose anti-Semitic nature is as obvious as it is despicable, hits what families hold most dear, their children, and plunges the entire nation into mourning," Hollande said.

His spokesperson, Benoit Hamon, said the election campaign had been suspended to "honour the memories" of the victims.

The campaign had been building up before the shooting, with Sarkozy for the first time last week moving ahead of Hollande in voter intentions in the first round of voting, to be held on April 22.

An IFOP poll released Sunday showed conservative Sarkozy with 27.5% of the vote compared to 27% for Hollande in the first round.

But Hollande was still forecast to comfortably win the May 6 run-off round with 54% to 46% for Sarkozy.

Monday's shooting saw children aged three, six and 10, and a 30-year-old religious education teacher shot dead as they arrived for classes at the Ozar Hatorah school.

The killer, riding a powerful scooter and packing two pistols, fired indiscriminately at the crowd outside the school.

The attack followed similar shootings that saw a scooter-riding gunman kill a paratrooper in Toulouse on March 11 and two more in nearby Montauban on Thursday. A third soldier was badly injured in the Montauban attack.

All the targeted soldiers were also from minority groups and a judicial source said on Monday one pistol was used in all three shootings.

Time for solidarity

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front also cancelled campaign events, including a speech and televised debate on Monday, saying it was a time to "suspend politics as a sign of compassion and solidarity".

"I will not comment on how this could touch politics," she told I-Tele television. "We are waiting, the whole country is waiting impatiently for this serial killer to be found so that all of us can breathe again."

Centrist candidate Francois Bayrou condemned the attack as a "premeditated horror with perverse and hateful intentions" and called for national unity.

Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Communist-allied Left Front described the "horrible murders" as "an attack on all the French".

Anti-racism group SOS Racisme called for a silent march in central Paris at 19:00 GMT on Monday to denounce the attack. A Jewish students' group was also to hold a march in Paris at 19:30 GMT to honour the victims.

Security had not played an important role in the campaign ahead of the shootings, with debates dominated by the economy and immigration.

The campaign was set to enter a new phase on Monday with authorities due to release the list of candidates who secured the 500 signatures of local officials required to be registered to officially run.