France left reeling by gunman’s murderous spree

It began on 11th March, when Imad Ibn Ziaten, a paratrooper of Moroccan origin, was shot dead when he went to meet someone who he believed was interested in buying his motorbike.

Four days later, a gunman on a scooter shot at three soldiers at a cashpoint in Montauban, near Toulouse. He killed Corporal Abel Chennouf and Private Mohamed Legouad, both of North African origin, and seriously injured Corporal Loic Liber from Guadaloupe. But the event that focused the eyes of the world on the Midi-Pyrenees, that caused shockwaves to reverberate across France, Europe and beyond, occurred on 19th March. The gunman, once again on a scooter, opened fire outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two sons, Gabriel, 3, and Aryeh, 6, and the daughter of the headteacher, Miriam Monsonego, 7. President Nicolas Sarkozy hurried to the scene, and all presidential candidates suspended campaigning as police confirmed that they believed all shootings to have been carried out by the same perpetrator. Speculation immediately began as to the motives of the killer, with many suspecting a right-wing extremist to be responsible.

They were soon proved wrong, however. On 21st March, an armed response unit surrounded the Toulouse flat of 23-year-old Mohammed Merah. A 23-year-old French Muslim, born and raised in France to parents of Algerian origin, he had telephoned French news agency France 24 [1] just 2 hours before the siege began, confessing to the attacks and claiming to be a member of Al Qaeda. He said the attacks were a protest against France’s ban on the burqa, and France’s participation in the Afghanistan war. When asked why he had attacked a Jewish school, he responded, “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine”.

The siege lasted 32 hours, ending with Merah being shot and killed by a sniper. But as the pain and grief continue for the families and friends of those he murdered, so do the questions about his motives. What turned a petty criminal into a radical jihadist who was willing to murder seven innocent people, including three children ? Was he, as some have claimed, a “lone wolf”, mentally ill and thus not representative of a wider problem ? Or was he actually a trained Al-Qaeda operative, as he claimed ?

Whatever the insane reasoning behind these fatal actions, the repercussions are already evident, especially for some of France’s minority groups. Despite Sarkozy urging that people should not connect Merah’s actions to Islam in any way, some Muslims fear an increase in islamophobia as a result of the attacks [2]. Meanwhile, the attack on the Jewish school also brought the issue of anti-semitism back into focus, with various other anti-semitic incidents being reported in the days following the shootings. [3]

As the election draws ever nearer, these are certainly testing times for France. Not only is there the fear that there may be more Mohammed Merahs in their midst, ready to commit murder arbitrarily, but his actions have provoked tensions within society that may not be so easy to resolve.

Photo : Police line do not cross by Heather on flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXhK...

[2] http://www.france24.com/en/20120324...

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-eur...

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3 mai 2012
France left reeling by gunman’s murderous spree

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