At least four people, including three children, were shot dead at a Jewish school in Toulouse in southwest France on Monday, the third fatal shooting in the region in just over a week.
President Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, the Socialist opposing him in his uphill bid for re-election in May, both cancelled appointments to head to the shooting scene to show sympathy for the victims and support for greater security.
The killings could bring the theme of security back to the top of the agenda in a bitter election campaign that has been dominated by issues of taxation and immigration. Prosecutors opened anti-terrorism investigations in all three attacks.
Toulouse prosecutor Michel Valet said the gunman killed a 30-year old Hebrew teacher, his two children aged three and six, and another child. A 17-year-old was also shot and in hospital for treatment.
“The attacker was shooting people outside the school, then pursued children into the school, before fleeing on a heavy motorbike,” Valet told reporters.
The assailant used a heavy-calibre firearm and another weapon. But officials could not say whether the guns were the same used in the killing of three soldiers in two separate shootings last week by a man who escaped on a scooter.
A spokesman for the interior ministry said that security was being tightened at all Jewish schools in the country.
The small Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in a leafy upscale neighborhood of Toulouse was a scene of mayhem after the attack, with parents crying and looking for their children.
“I saw two people dead in front of the school, an adult and a child ... Inside, it was a vision of horror, the bodies of two small children,” a distraught father whose child attends the school told RTL radio.
“I did not find my son; apparently he fled when he saw what happened. How can they attack something as sacred as a school, attack children only 60 centimeters (two feet) tall?”
Sarkozy, campaigning for a two-round election in April and May, was on his way to Toulouse along with Education Minister Luc Chatel and the president of the French-Jewish association CRIF, Richard Prasquier.
“This is a terrible tragedy ... The entire French republic is touched by this terrible drama,” Sarkozy said on Radio Ô.
He cited similarities with the shootings of soldiers in Toulouse and the nearby town of Montauban last week but said that it was too soon to establish whether there was a link.
“Only the courts and the police can tell what consequences to draw from this,” Sarkozy said.
Hollande, whose lead in opinion polls over Sarkozy has narrowed in recent weeks, said in a statement: “I will go to Toulouse immediately to pay my respect to the victims and to show my sympathy and solidarity with the families and the Jewish community in France.”
A spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, Yigal Palmor, expressed outrage at the killings. “We are following with great shock reports coming from Toulouse and we trust the French authorities will solve this crime and bring those responsible to justice,” Palmor said.
About 50 investigators were already looking into the shooting on Thursday in Montauban that killed two soldiers and left a third seriously injured.
The three men, aged between 24 and 28, were shot while in uniform as they tried to withdraw money from a cash machine close to the barracks of the 17th parachute regiment.
A third soldier, aged 30, was killed the previous weekend in Toulouse. Investigators said the same weapon had been used in both incidents.