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France to resume poll race after gunman’s death

By | March 24th 2012

France’s presidential election race resumed, irrevocably altered by the killing of an al Qaeda-inspired gunman whose murders have shifted the political debate in favour of incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mohamed Merah’s cold-blooded shootings of seven people, including three Jewish schoolchildren, forced politicians to suspend normal campaigning while a giant manhunt closed in on the 23-year-old unemployed panel-beater.

That hunt ended in a cacophony of gunfire shortly before midday on Thursday, after a 30-hour siege in the southern city of Toulouse. Merah was shot in the head as he clambered out of a groundfloor window with all guns blazing, fulfilling his macabre wish of dying with a weapon in his hand.

Counter-terrorism operatives said they had wanted to capture him alive, but had been forced to kill him when he began to fire at police commandos searching his flat, wounding at least two of them.

The young self-styled Islamist’s crimes spread fear, triggered an emotive debate about immigration and integration, and gave Sarkozy a small bounce in the polls as he sought to close the gap behind Socialist rival Francois Hollande.

With only one month left to go before the first round of the election, Merah’s influence is likely to endure.

"Of course what has happened in the past week has changed the course of events," a senior Sarkozy campaign adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There wasn’t much talk about security and terrorism before.

But this is going to raise questions about our system of integration, our approach to fundamentalism and our tolerance of certain practices here. You’re going to hear a lot about that in the weeks to come," he said.

President Sarkozy will visit the northern French town of Valenciennes on Friday where he is expected to tour urban renovation projects, industrial facilities, and purpose-built housing for workers.

The first opinion poll conducted since Merah committed his third and deadliest attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday showed Sarkozy surging past Hollande in the April 22 first round, even though it predicted Hollande would still win a May 6 runoff.

— Reuters

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