PARIS - Mohamed Merah's killing spree this month in southwest France set off shockwaves, and three days after he died in a police raid of his Toulouse apartment the controversy continues to mount. He perpetrated the first terror shooting at a French school, and people in this country are asking whether the tragedy could have been averted.
Meanwhile, marches against anti-Semitism and racism planned in Toulouse and Paris today are expected to draw thousands.
Merah's name was in French intelligence files, he was on the U.S. "no-fly list" and some of his neighbors had complained to police about his alleged violent behavior, yet France's intelligence agencies did not consider him a danger and never put him under surveillance.
The French authorities were quick to reject any accusations of failure, saying there was nothing they could have done to prevent the tragedy.
"Expressing ideas, espousing Salafist beliefs, is not a sufficient reason to arrest someone," Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.
"In a country like ours it's illegal to put a person under a 24-hour watch unless he committed an offense, and you also need a judge's consent," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Thursday.
He was soon called to speak in defense of the elite police unit that conducted the raid. The initial goal was to capture Merah alive in order to try him. But he was shot dead after a 32-hour siege of his home. Some people said the police should have moved in earlier, while others - including members of the Jewish and Muslim communities - said police should have waited longer before launching the raid.
"Police have techniques to catch people alive," said Mehana Mouhou, a lawyer for the family of Merah's first victim, Sgt. Imad Ibn Ziaten of the French Armed Forces. "They didn't need to end this urgently. They could have resumed negotiations. Now the family will never get answers to their questions. They wanted to hear the murderer. They wanted to see him convicted."
Christian Prouteau, who in the 1980s founded France's elite GIGN unit, said tear gas should have been pumped into Merah's apartment in order to subdue him.
The government's reply was that the main goal of stopping Merah from killing again was achieved.
"There's a difference between the men of the RAID [elite police unite] and their critics," Fillon said on Friday. "RAID officers look death in the eye while the critics look at the images on television."
The French government appeared to be united behind security forces and President Nicolas Sarkozy. A public opinion poll issued Friday gave Sarkozy a 74-percent approval rating over his conduct during the crisis (74% ); surveys indicate the tragedy could actually boost his reelection campaign.
His party hopes the controversy will die down quickly.
In contrast to previous terror incidents in France, this time the perpetrator's family did not distance itself from him. Merah's brother said he was proud.
In some quarters Merah has been openly hailed as a hero. In Sartrouville, near Paris, extremists tagged his name on walls, together with anti-Semitic slogans. A Facebook fan page created in his honor garnered 435 "likes" in just a few hours.
One French schoolteacher even suggested to her puzzled students to observe a minute of silence for the killer, saying authorities set him up. The government said in response that the teacher has psychological problems.
Many French fear more extremism, while Jews are concerned about growing anti-Semitism. Dozens of Jewish tombs were desecrated in a Nice cemetery last week.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now