Political row: Sarkozy calls for unity

Thu, Mar 22, 2012, 00:00

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has called for national unity after paying tribute to the three soldiers who were shot dead in southwest France last week.

At a ceremony in an army barracks in Montauban, near Toulouse, Mr Sarkozy praised the contribution to their country of Imad Ibn Ziaten (30), who died in the first attack by the motorbike killer in Toulouse, and Abel Chennouf (25) and Mohamed Legouad (24), who were shot dead as they queued for a cash machine in Montauban last week. A fourth soldier of Caribbean origin is in a coma.

“Our soldiers have not died in the way for which they had prepared themselves. This was not a death on the battlefield, but a terrorist murder,” Mr Sarkozy said, standing before three coffins draped in the French flag after paying his respects to bereaved relatives.

“We must remain united. We should in no way yield to discrimination or vengeance,” he said in his eulogy. “France can only be great in unity. We owe it to the memory of these men, we owe it to the three murdered children, to all the victims.”

Mr Sarkozy’s appeal for national unity came amid signs that a tentative national truce among politicians had already been broken, however.

Commenting on events in Toulouse, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, said it was time to “wage war” on Islamist groups that had flourished due to a lax government. Ms Le Pen, who is in third place in opinion polls just over a month before voting begins in the presidential election, said: “It is time to wage war on these fundamentalist political religious groups who are killing our children. The fundamentalist threat has been underestimated.”

Ms Le Pen claimed that 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.

All the main candidates for the presidency attended yesterday’s ceremony for the deceased soldiers in Montauban.

Mr Sarkozy’s party rebuked Ms Le Pen, saying she was trying to use the Toulouse drama for political ends.

François Hollande, the socialist frontrunner, was also criticised by the president’s allies for suggesting that “those in responsibility” should be careful with their choice of words.

Mr Hollande suspended his campaign and rushed to Toulouse to show solidarity with the Jewish community here after Monday’s attack.

Events in Toulouse are expected to transform the campaign, with issues such secularism and security likely to move centre-stage.