| TOULOUSE, France, March 20
TOULOUSE, France, March 20 From the ancient
university at its rose-pink mediaeval heart to the booming
aerospace plants that now fill its sunny skies with jetstreams,
Toulouse, fast-growing old capital of the south, is a city of
dreams for many in France.
All the more shocking then that a nightmare killer, driven
it seems by race and religious hatreds, is stalking its streets,
having shot dead three Jewish children and a rabbi on Monday
after also murdering three soldiers of North African origin.
"It's an exceptionally open and welcoming city, where the
lifestyle of the southwest reigns supreme," said Gerard Bapt, a
local member of parliament, on Tuesday, referencing the French
image of the region as one of sunshine and song, hearty cuisine
and a certain raffish insouciance toward the business of life.
"So something like this comes as a shock for us."
A crossroads since Roman times between the Mediterranean and
Atlantic and routes from the north to Spain across the Pyrenees,
Toulouse has boomed in recent decades as a home to European
plane maker Airbus, the French space agency CNES and a hothouse
of researchers clustered around its 800-year-old university.
But if the city, now jostling with older industrial hubs in
the north for the rank of France's third biggest, has been a
magnet for engineers and others seeking a good life in the
rolling green hinterland and elegant, pink-brick squares of "La
Ville Rose", it is also a magnet for many poorer immigrants.
In Le Mirail, a gigantic housing project of the 1950s, built
like many in France on the ill-served fringes of the town, live
some 100,000 people, many with roots in Africa or the Caribbean.
Many have struggled for decades to find a place in society.
There have been frequent clashes with police, who complain of
stretched resources and a rise in petty crime across the city.
"While the population has shot up, police resources have
stagnated," complained Didier Martinez, a police trade union
representative, explaining in part what local people say was a
reduction in protection for the Jewish school.
"With the resources in Toulouse, we cannot be permanently
outside every school, synagogue and mosque," Martinez added.
That tensions over immigration and economic change, which
exist across France, should surface in Toulouse has been a blow
to the self-confidence of a city that has reinvented itself.
It remains steeped in a history in which it played the role
of capital for the independent-minded barons and people of the
Languedoc - the southern swathe of territory where French was a
foreign language and which long resisted giving full obedience
to Paris, a process only completed after the 1789 revolution.
A cockpit of religious wars in the 13th Century, when popes
and kings of France crusaded with blood and fire against the
Albigensian, or Cathar, heretics of the region, Toulouse saw the
birth of the Dominican order of friars, whose simple piety was
aimed at appeasing those who rebelled against church excesses.
In the same period, Toulouse's Jews were driven out, ending
centuries in which a community survived, and sometimes thrived,
despite a local custom that saw Jewish elders forced to submit
to ritual beatings by Christians as a form of penance, prompted
by church teachings about Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus.
In the 20th century, a city whose Renaissance centre recalls
the riches of the trade in "pastel", the blue dye woad, became a
nursery for the aviation industry when German forces occupied
France's heavy industrial heartland in the north. And when civil
war tore Spain apart in the 1930s, Toulouse welcomed thousands
of refugees, whose culture still influences the city today.
"It was a very peaceful city," said former mayor Philippe
Douste-Blazy, who was once also France's foreign minister.
"But it's true there's been a steady rise in crime with the
increase in population."
One Algerian living in the city for the past five years,
37-year-old Ahmed, was no less stunned than the politicians:
"How can this sort of thing happen in Toulouse? I feel sick
Local industry, which gave birth to the Caravelle jetliner
in the 1950s, the supersonic Concorde and the growing Airbus
fleet of airliners, has also brought its dangers. Thirty-one
Toulousains were killed in 2001 when the AZF chemical blew up.
But the principal effect of the thriving factories around
the city's periphery has been a population boom, adding some
20,000 people a year to an urban area that is now home to about
a million, nearly one in 10 of whom is a university student.
A local Jewish group estimates there are about 2,500 Jewish
families in Toulouse many of whom fled France's former colonies
in North Africa after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. A Muslim
association has estimated there are some 35,000 Muslims in town.
Aside from jobs, the city has much to offer those drawn to
the southwest. The industrial boom has brought investment in
public theatres and other entertainments, a metro underground
railway and a host of other infrastructure.
And then there are the timeless charms of the local way of
life: it boasts a rich culture, delivered in a distinctive
twang; a sporting heritage in which the local rugby team is a
source of pride, one of the world powers in the game; and, of
course, the cuisine - from rich local wines and Armagnac brandy,
to fois gras duck liver and cassoulet, a bean stew often
featuring the garlicky local sausage, saucisse de Toulouse.
Monday's deaths have soured the good life, for now. Along
with a number of other festivities and performances, the
Carnival the city was due to hold this week has been cancelled.
(Additional reporting and writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing
by Geert De Clercq and Alastair Macdonald)