Midi-Pyrénées, the region in southwestern France stretching from Massif Central — the dark, wooded mountains of Auvergne, Rouergue, and Quercy — to the spacious Toulouse Valley and the Pyrenean cordillera on the Spanish border, was, since March 19, under “scarlet” alert: the closest France comes to martial law.
The army and police patrolled the entire area. Vehicles were subject to inspection at will. Police could half traffic without prior warning. Schools, shops, offices, and factories could be shut down by order and citizens required to stay home. Twenty-five sharpshooters from Raid had been dispatched from Paris. And naturally, telephone and internet connections were extensively monitored. No small matter considering that Greater Toulouse, the region’s capital and the seat of Airbus and other major industrial companies, is France’s fourth largest city with over one million inhabitants. In fact, this was the first time since the introduction in 1995 of Vigipirate, the French equivalent of Homeland Security, that France resorted to such drastic measures.
A chilling succession of killings in Toulouse and Montauban, an important military center one hundred miles away, triggered the “scarlet” alert.
The killing spree began on March 11, when a NCO of Maghrebine descent from the Montauban-based 17th Paratroopers Engineer Regiment, was drawn into a trap and shot in Toulouse. According to one witness, the attacker dressed as a motorbiker. Then, on March 15, three soldiers from the same unit — two Maghrebines and one Caribbean — were shot in Montauban while stopped at an ATM. The aggressor rode a motorbike and wore a leather outfit and opaque helmet. And finally, on March 19, another biker in full motorcylce gear — or possibly the same one — attacked the Jewish Ozar Hatora school complex in Toulouse. He first randomly fired at the parents, children, and teachers in the school’s courtyard before stepping down from his bike to kill four people in cold blood: 30 year-old religion teacher Jonathan Sandler, his sons Aryeh and Gabriel (5 and 4), and a 7-year-old girl, Myriam Monsenego, whom he grabbed by the hair to lodge a bullet in her head. He then jumped back on his bike and vanished from the massacre.
According to French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, the similarities between the assassination of soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban and the eerie butchery at Ozar Hatora were “compelling.” Moreover, investigators established that the criminal used the same weapon, a World War II 11.43 gun, in all three instances. What remained unclear, according to police, was the number of killers and whether they had received support from a larger criminal network. Motive also remained a mystery.
For 48 hours, many speculated about a neo-Nazi psychopath, some sort of French Tim McVeigh or Anders Breivik. What seemed to encourage this view was the fact that the shooter targeted only non-Caucasian soldiers and Jews and that a neo-Nazi network had been investigated and prosecuted among the Montauban military four years ago.
In fact, the police already knew their suspect: one single killer, a jihadist. The man — Mohammed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin — was not even hiding. Confident that police sought a neo-Nazi, he stayed at his unassuming home in Toulouse. Tuesday evening, the Raid huntsmen and dozens of other police personnel circled the building. At 3:00 AM they tried to apprehend him alive. He fired on them, wounding two. By 6:00 PM local time, the police expect him to surrender soon.
According to various sources, Merah is primarily a thief who grew radicalized by jihadists while incarcerated. After jail he traveled to Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan, where he received first class combat training. While negotiating with the police on Wednesday, he claimed to belong to al-Qaeda. That may be true or not. Little doubt remains, however, that his systematic murders of French soldiers (especially Muslim French soldiers, seen as renegades) and Jews (including children) fit with jihadist and al-Qaeda ideology, strategy, and tactics.
One month ahead of the presidential election, the French political class wanted to both draw on the emotional impact of the killings and avoid gaffes or politically incorrect statements. All presidential candidates expressed their shock and anger about the deliberate killing of Jewish children. Most attended Jewish services in Paris and Toulouse. President Sarkozy suspended his campaign for three days and his rivals did the same. On the other hand, Sarkozy warned against “amalgamating” the “peaceful and law abiding Muslim community” with jihadists and other radicals, or “calling for retribution.” Many other candidates, or national leaders, said the same.
Such attitudes displease French Jews. For one thing, they know that if all Muslims are not jihadists, jihadism and other extremist movements still spread among French Muslims, especially the younger, French-born, generation. Conversely, they believe that their own global image and condition have steadily deteriorated for years and that this explains at least in part the torturing and killing of Ilan Halimi in 2006 and the Toulouse massacre today.
According to Sammy Ghozlan, a former police superintendent and the head of a French antisemitism monitoring group, street violence against Jews is increasing, and is largely perpetrated by Muslim thugs. (Just one week ago, a Jewish high school student was beaten at Porte de Bagnolet in Paris, until he was rescued by horrified witnesses.) The so called BDS campaign (anti-Israel boycott), while illegal, gains ground and grows more violent. It is not uncommon for BDS activists to “occupy” stores that sell Israeli products or bookshops that sell pro-Israel literature and to dump or damage the items, a practice reminiscent of the SA, anti-Jewish boycott in the 1930s. One hears “Death to Jews” mottos frequently in Muslim-populated areas. Such cries sounded last month in Champigny, near Paris, upon the release of a comedy about Sefardi Jews, La Vérité si je mens 3.
French radio and TV indulge routinely in Israel-bashing and even, more recently, Jew-bashing programs; a laxity encouraged, French Jews surmise, by the rampant anti-Zionism of many government agencies and initiatives (like granting sovereign state status to the Palestinian Authority at UNESCO). Last but not least, Prime Minister François Fillon crossed a red line three weeks ago when he bluntly decried both hallal and kosher slaughtering as irrational “ancestral customs” and President Sarkozy failed to reassure when he advocated “voluntary tagging” for ritually slaughtered food.