It was a pleasant afternoon outside the café on Rue du Faubourg Bonnefoy, but for once none of the patio chairs were occupied. The regulars, mostly dark-skinned Frenchmen of Algerian descent, had decided to drink their coffee and smoke their cigarettes inside, by the kitchen.
“People are just being careful today – he’s still at large, and nobody knows where he might come next on that scooter,” said Yacine Fayçal, the bartender. All around this residential neighbourhood, shutters were drawn and sidewalks unusually quiet. He had killed three times, each time with greater brutality, and there was a sense that anyone, especially minorities, could be the next victim.
A day before, the man on the Yamaha scooter had driven up to a Jewish school around the corner from this café and pulled out a .45-calibre pistol. He placed it against the temple of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and shot him. He chased Myriam Monsonego, 7, across the parking lot, grabbed her hair and shot her in the head. He then returned to the sidewalk and shot Rabbi Sandler’s two sons, Gabriel and Arieh, ages 3 and 6, in the head as they lay on the ground.
In two other incidents, each four days apart, he had shot or gravely wounded four French paratroopers of North African Muslim or black Caribbean descent. Prosecutors said all his victims were shot in the temple with the barrel of the pistol touching their heads.
People, especially Jews, were warned to stay indoors. “This is someone who has killed every four days, who is extremely organized, who has a high-calibre weapon,” said François Molins, the Paris prosecutor, who is investigating the crimes on suspicion of terrorism.
A candlelight vigil was taking shape on the narrow street outside the Jewish school, Lycée Ozar Hatorah. The building already had considerable security measures – iron gates unlocked by security guards, high walls, video surveillance cameras, metal bollards to prevent cars from mounting the sidewalk – in the wake of threats against Jews in the region from far-right groups.
But the combination of utter inhumanity and coldhearted self-discipline has left France terrified of the killer’s next act. Political campaigns in the national election have ground to a halt and the police have issued a “scarlet alert,” flooding the streets across southern France with uniformed officers and soldiers.
“This has happened in Toulouse, in a religious school with children from Jewish families, but it could have happened here,” President Nicolas Sarkozy told students at a Paris high school near the city’s Holocaust memorial. “The same killer could have come here; these children are exactly like you.”
Many parents, especially Jews and Muslims, kept their children out of school on Tuesday. For the rest, there was a nationwide minute of silence at 11 a.m. There was a palpable sense that the nation was paralyzed with grief and fear.
The powerful Yamaha scooter driven by the killer is the most popular brand in France, leading to hundreds of false reports turned into police and a broad sense of jagged nerves and paranoia on the streets.
“It’s the invisible man, who appears and disappears – the killer who jumps out of a video game,” the Toulouse novelist Christian Authier wrote in the local newspaper.
Despite the very heavy police presence here, there is a sense that the police have few clues as to the identity or motive of the killer. He has left no DNA traces, investigators said.