French election campaign on hold after school shooting

Michael Mainville
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France's incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy (C)

France's incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy (C), speaks in front of the "Ozar Hatorah" Jewish school where four people were shot dead

France effectively put its election campaign on hold 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, cancelled campaign events and rushed to the southern city of Toulouse, amid fears the attack could be the work of a serial killer.

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.

"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."

Speaking later after a meeting of top security officials in Paris, Sarkozy said he was putting the southwestern Midi-Pyrenees region on its highest terror alert level and suspending his campaign until at least Wednesday.

"This odious act cannot remain unpunished. All means, absolutely all means available, will be committed to neutralise this criminal," he said.

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

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

"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 spokesman, Benoit Hamon, said Hollande's election campaign had been suspended to "honour the memories" of the victims.

Both Sarkozy and Hollande, as well as other top officials, later attended a ceremony at the Nazareth synagogue in central Paris to commemorate the victims.

Led by a Jewish students' group, thousands of Parisans held a silent march through the east of the capital, passing by historic Jewish districtsm, after the ceremony.

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 percent of the vote compared to 27 percent for Hollande in the first round.

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

Monday's shooting saw two boys and their father, a 30-year-old religious studies teacher, gunned down along with the daughter of the director of the school.

The Israeli foreign ministry identified the dead as Franco-Israeli citizens Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 4, as well as seven-year-old girl Miriam Monsonego.

The gunman opened fire as children and teachers arrived for class in the morning, then charged on to school grounds. A fifth victim, a 17-year-old boy, was in critical condition.

The killer escaped on a powerful scooter.

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 officials said Monday that the same gun and scooter were used in all the attacks.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front also cancelled campaign events 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.

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

The campaign entered a new phase on Monday as France's Constitutional Court approved 10 candidates to run for the presidency after confirming they had collected the required 500 signatures from mayors and regional councillors.

There were no surprises on the list, with all leading candidates including Hollande and Sarkozy approved.