It is as if France has been frozen in horror, its institutions paralyzed, its politics halted, its leaders unable to respond. Monday's slayings at a Jewish school in Toulouse were a wholly new outrage – and yet, in the poisoned political atmosphere of southern France, there was a disturbing sense of inevitability.
The revelation Monday afternoon that at least one of the two pistols used in the Jewish-school slaying was the same one used in the previous week's murders of three soldiers – two of them Muslims of North African immigrant backgrounds – suggested that this was an act driven by dark beliefs cultivated in the current French air of distrust.
The possibility that small children and teachers were slain because of their religion and ethnicity brought to mind the worst outrages of the country's Nazi occupation, and had no precedent in postwar France. Yet it occurred against a backdrop of mounting interracial and ethnic tension and increasingly mainstream messages of political extremism and intolerance.
French politics have turned into an angry culture war, and its flashpoint is often the southern coast of France, which is home to both the largest concentrations of religious minorities and the strongest support for extreme-right, anti-immigration political parties.
With a hotly contested presidential election pending on April 22 in which conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy faces a serious challenge from the extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose 17-per-cent standing in the polls threatens Mr. Sarkozy's majority, France's politics had turned increasingly racial and xenophobic. The April 22 vote is the first of two rounds, with the runoff on May 6.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Sarkozy had shocked European observers by declaring in a three-hour TV debate that, "We have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school." It was almost a precise echo of Ms. Le Pen's heated anti-immigration message.
His prime minister, François Fillon, drew on Ms. Le Pen's National Front party message the same week by suggesting that Jews and Muslims ought to stop eating kosher and halal meal: "Religions should think about whether they should keep traditions that don't have much in common with today's state of science, technology and health problems," he said. Mr. Sarkozy has himself hinted that ritually slaughtered meat sold on the open market was an offence.
On the day of the killings, France's election office announced that the 10 candidates who had been found eligible to run for president included Ms. Le Pen and a number of other figures from the far right and left. While there is no evidence that the killer had any affiliation with any political party or movement, the fact that the atrocity occurred in the midst of a full-fledged culture battle is bound to transform the country's political climate, certainly for the duration of the election.
The search for a motive
Given that the same handgun, motorcycle and clothing were used in the shootings of a predominantly Muslim group of soldiers last week and a group of Jewish children and teachers on Monday, investigators are pursuing two main motives.
First, that the killer comes from the far right – either an organized right-wing extremist from one of many movements popular in France or a lone, ideologically driven killer similar to Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed 77 people last summer to protest against Muslim immigration. Prosecutors say they were especially interested in a far-right motive because the 17th Parachute Regiment has had a problem with neo-Nazis in its ranks. In 2008, French media revealed that three of its soldiers had been removed from the regiment's ranks after being filmed participating in an extreme-right ritual that involved Hitler salutes. Those soldiers were reportedly questioned Monday by anti-terrorism investigators.
Prosecutors are also pursuing a "second track" of investigation involving Islamist terrorism – more likely a domestic organization than a global group like al-Qaeda.
Because the paratroopers had recently returned from Afghanistan, it is possible that an Islamic extremist could have killed them as traitors and then committed the Jewish killings out of anti-Semitic motives or as revenge for recent Israeli military actions in the Palestinian territories (two of the victims had dual Israeli-French citizenship). While this does not fit the pattern of any known Islamist groups, the theory is being seriously considered, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said they are also open to the possibility that the killer is a member of an extreme-left group with anti-Semitic leanings – several of which exist in France – or an isolated, mentally disturbed individual, perhaps with a police or a military background.
Communities in fear
"The security of our community has been a real issue for us for 10 years," said Ariel Goldman of the Jewish Community Protection Service, a national group. "We are in an almost permanent state of alert. … There is great concern in schools, in families. This is the first time in 30 years that we are the victims of a shooting of this magnitude."
Jewish schools have been receiving extra state security since 2005, on the basis of intelligence warnings about the potential for far-right and Islamist attacks, according to a report in Le Monde newspaper.
The presidential moment
Mr. Sarkozy will almost certainly have to drop his "too many foreigners" rhetoric and, if the killer proves to be a far-right activist or an anti-immigration zealot, the political tenor of this election could shift dramatically.
It brings to mind the 2002 election, when the brutal killing of a pensioner just before the first-round vote raised fears of crime and immigration and caused a surge of support for Ms. Le Pen's father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, giving the extremist party a place on the final-round ballot for the first time.
If the killer proves to be a right-winger, the shock of slain religious-minority children could have the opposite effect, discrediting the xenophobic policies of the National Front and driving voters toward Socialist Party opposition leader François Hollande. On the other hand, if the killer proves to be an Islamist, the slaying could further galvanize French politics and drive the centre of gravity further right.
Mr. Sarkozy's position is unpredictable. While the killing could hurt him by drawing attention to the dangerous outcomes of his stronger anti-immigrant rhetoric, the President has a history of benefiting from events involving immigrant tensions and violence. He first came to public attention in 1993 when, after serving as the mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, he negotiated with a "human bomb" terrorist who had taken children hostage in a kindergarten. That thrust him into a national cabinet position. Then in 2005, he rose to presidential stature by using the riots in the immigrant high-rise suburbs of Paris to take a tough-on-crime stand. His angry response was seen by many to be his key to the presidency.