PARIS (Reuters) - French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen broke a tentative campaign truce on Wednesday, saying an attack on a Jewish school showed it was time to “wage war” on Islamist groups that had flourished due to a lax government.
Le Pen, who is in third place in opinion polls for the April 22 first round, cast aside any semblance of national unity as police laid siege to an apartment in southwest France where a young Muslim gunman suspected of the killings was holed up.
“It is time to wage war on these fundamentalist political religious groups who are killing our children,” Le Pen said on TV news channel i>tele.
“The fundamentalist threat has been underestimated.”
Police were besieging the gunman, a French citizen of Algerian origin, in an apartment in the southwestern city of Toulouse who according to Interior Minister Claude Gueant said he carried out three attacks on Jews and soldiers in the last 10 days, killing seven people.
Gueant said Mohamed Merah claimed affiliation with al Qaeda.
Le Pen said Islamist militants had prospered “thanks to a degree of laxity” and that she would seek a debate about restoring the death penalty, abolished 30 years ago in France under the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.
While conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and his main rival, Socialist Francois Hollande, suspended campaigning after Monday’s school shooting, Le Pen’s comments drew angry responses from several other outsider candidates in the election race.
Francois Bayrou, a popular centrist who is fourth-ranked in the polls, said she had overstepped the mark.
“The extreme right is trying to exploit this situation,” he said. “Nobody has the right to let the political debate run off the rails.”
Hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has been waging a war of words with Le Pen for weeks and has branded her “semi-demented”, warned in a statement against political exploitation of the shootings to stoke hatred.
“Our first duty from this point is to prevent this situation being used as a pretext to promote hateful approximations and stigmatization,” he said.
The killings have played to Sarkozy’s strengths, showcasing his national leadership and putting the issue of security at the top of the political agenda in what had seemed an uphill re-election battle against Hollande.
The Socialist still leads the incumbent in polls for the May 6 runoff but no surveys have yet been published that were taken after Monday’s events.
Some political analysts say the killings may turn the election campaign upside down and prove a windfall for Sarkozy, a tough-talking former interior minister.
The president’s response to the shootings of Jewish school children and soldiers has enabled him to recapture the moral high ground, lead the nation in mourning and don his favorite uniform as France’s first policeman.
Like U.S. President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg after last August’s Oslo shootings, he has found the words and gestures to express the shock, determination and unity of a wounded nation.
That is a harder task for his Socialist rival, Hollande, who has also cancelled campaign events, visited the crime scenes and attended commemorations, but inevitably has a back-seat role while the president is chairing emergency meetings and ordering deployments.
Both men attended the funerals of the dead soldiers on Wednesday. But as an opposition leader, Hollande sat silently in a line of election candidates at the ceremony, while Sarkozy was shown comforting the families and delivering a moving eulogy and a rousing call for national unity.
Hollande has called for a new spirit of “living together” - code for embracing France’s ethnic diversity.
Reporting By Brian Love; Editing by Paul Taylor and Peter Millership