PARIS Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen accused France's government on Thursday of surrendering poor suburbs to Islamic radicals and demanded more focus on the nation's security failings just weeks before a presidential election.
Le Pen, third in opinion polls, was speaking in the wake of the killing of three Jewish children, a rabbi and three soldiers in Toulouse. Their suspected killer, Mohamed Merah, a French citizen with Algerian origins, was killed in a hail of bullets on Thursday in a police siege.
"The government is scared," said Le Pen, who took the reins of France's anti-immigrant National Front party from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen last year.
"I've been saying this for 10 years. Entire districts are in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and I say it again today the danger is underestimated," she told France Info radio.
"The reality dawning on the French people is that social and civil peace has been bought in a number of districts and that price is the development of (fundamentalist) networks," she said, estimating there were thousands of Islamic militants in France.
She accused France's intelligence services of failing to track the suspected killer Mohamed Merah despite the fact he had been arrested repeatedly and boasted of working for al Qaeda. "They should have been monitoring this green fascism that's developing in our country."
France, a country of 65 million, is home to Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities, estimated at respectively five million and 600,000-plus.
Most mainstream politicians on the left and right of the political spectrum say that she is dangerously stigmatizing large swathes of society.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election campaign started out in late February with a promise to halve the number of immigrants that come into France each year.
In this week's controversy, others candidates have mostly sought to rise above the populist rhetoric.
One of Le Pen's fiercest critics, hardline left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, told a rally: "Not for a quarter of a second can we accept that ill be said of the country's second religion, all because of a madman."
This week's killings at a Jewish school and the link with the earlier killings of three soldiers in the same southwestern region of France initially prompted a fragile truce in France's election campaigning.
Political analysts say the Toulouse killings could transform the contest in the few weeks left before the two-round ballot, which takes place on April 22 and May 6.
Le Pen's father Jean-Marie created a sensation in 2002 when, after a strong law-and-order campaign, he outscored Socialist contender Lionel Jospin to qualify for the presidential election runoff against Jacques Chirac, who ultimately won.
Marine Le Pen has devoted much of the past year to working on the National Front's image as a party with a full range of economic and other policy solutions to offer. But she has returned to the party's traditional themes of immigration and security issues as election days near and her poll position weakens.
Sarkozy, facing an uphill battle for re-election, is seen by analysts as the candidate most likely to gain from the uncertainty and renewed focus on security after the killings.
Riots erupted across many of France's powder-keg suburbs in 2005 at a time when Sarkozy was interior minister. He and his main rival in the election, Socialist Francois Hollande, are both promising to improve the lot of France's worst suburban districts, often home to large Arab and African communities and plagued by joblessness and crime.
He trails frontrunner Hollande in the polls, which all point to a runoff victory that would make Hollande the first Socialist president in 17 years.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday the government would have to answer questions over the Toulouse killings.
"I understand that the question of whether there was a slipup or not can be asked. I do not know if there was a failing ... but this matter will have to be clarified," he said.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan and Jon Boyle)