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, both cancelled campaign events and rushed to the southwestern city of Toulouse.
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, his voice cracking.
“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.”
“I want to say to all the leaders of the Jewish community, how close we feel to them. All of France is at their side,” he said, adding that all Jewish and Muslim schools in the region would see increased security measures.
Hollande also said he was heading to the city 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 in a statement.
His spokesman, Benoit Hamon, said the election campaign had been suspended to “honor the memories” of the victims.
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.
The latest IFOP poll released Sunday showed conservative Sarkozy with 27.5 percent of the vote compared to 27 percent for Hollande in the first round.
The campaign was set to enter a new phase on Monday with authorities due to release the list of candidates who secured the 500 signatures of local officials required to be registered to officially run.
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 children aged three, six and 10, and a 30-year-old religious education teacher, shot dead as they arrived for classes at the Ozar Hatorah school.
The killer, riding a powerful scooter and packing two pistols, fired indiscriminately at the crowd outside the school.
The attack followed similar shootings that saw a motorbike-riding gunman kill three paratroopers in Toulouse on March 11, and on Thursday in nearby Montauban. One more soldier was badly injured.
All the targeted soldiers were also from minority groups.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front also cancelled campaign events, including a speech and televised debate Monday, 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.
Bayrou said he would join other candidates in going to Toulouse and would attend a ceremony at the city’s main synagogue.
Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Communist-allied Left Front described the “horrible murders” as “an attack on all the French”.
Security had not played an important role in the campaign ahead of the shootings, with debates dominated by the economy and immigration.
Outside of France, the shooting was condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“In France today there was a despicable murder of Jews, including small children,” Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud party, hours after the incident in the southwestern city of Toulouse.
“It is too early to determine exactly what the background to the murderous act was, but we certainly cannot rule out the option that it was motivated by violent and murderous anti-Semitism.”
The Pope also condemned the “heinous” school shooting, as did the United States.
Shortly after the attack, France stepped up security at all Jewish and Muslim schools.