Watch CBSN Live

Extremist suspect upends French presidential race

(AP) PARIS - French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen says her anti-Islam agenda has been vindicated: A French Muslim claiming ties to al Qaeda has taken responsibility for the country's worst killing spree in years.

The specter of radical Islam's grip on France has threatened to overturn France's presidential race, in which Socialist Francois Hollande has long been the pollster's favorite to unseat the divisive conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Le Pen, the No. 3 candidate in polls, said France must "wipe out" the Islamist threat, saying it has been minimized by authorities.

Sarkozy has borrowed from Le Pen's playbook in campaigning for the presidential election on April 22 and its expected runoff May 6, with talk of halving immigration and lamenting widespread availability of halal meat.

It's too soon to tell definitively how two-day standoff with suspect Mohamed Merah, 23, could affect Sarkozy's chances for a second term. Merah, who bragged to police about killing seven people in an effort to "bring France to its knees," died Thursday in a shootout with police in Toulouse.

French officials: Gunman fired about 30 shots
French killings suspect liked "cars, girls"

Still, a poll released Thursday suggested that Sarkozy may benefit politically from the horror of recent days.

The survey by CSA suggested Sarkozy would slightly dominate the first round of voting in April but lose to Hollande in the May runoff by 46 percent to 54 percent.

Support for Le Pen was notably down. The poll was conducted Monday and Tuesday, after a rabbi and three children were shot dead at a Jewish school but before details about the suspect Merah emerged. A total of 1,003 people were questioned by telephone.

In many French minds now lurks the memory of Spain's 2004 election, which came three days after deadly train bombings in Madrid by Islamic terrorists. In that case the incumbent conservatives had expected to win but lost at the last minute to the Socialists.

In the United States, continued worries about terrorism and security after the Sept. 11 attacks had the opposite effect, helping to bring George W. Bush a second term in 2004.

Le Pen's far-right National Front claims that so-called Islamization is corrupting the French culture and will change France if no one acts against the influx of Muslim immigrants and the growing demands of Muslims born on French soil.

France has an estimated 5 million Muslims — the largest such population in Western Europe — and many have long worked to defeat chronic and ambient discrimination within French society. Anti-Muslim sentiment tends to peak with international tensions like the Palestinian intifada or the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda terror attacks.

The revelation that the chief suspect in three deadly attacks this month in the Toulouse region in southwest France was a Frenchman of Algerian origin who claimed al Qaeda ties and traveled twice to Afghanistan resonated among candidates and put Muslims on the defensive.

After authorities identified Merah, a man with a long record of petty crimes, Muslim and Jewish leaders joined in a single voice to warn against any bid to stigmatize Islam.

"Muslims like Jews, Jews like Muslims, and condemn all confusion that might be made between the international political situation in the Middle East and the monstrous act that ... has horrified all French," the Grand Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim said Wednesday after meeting with Muslim leaders and Sarkozy.

Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the CFCM, an umbrella group for French Muslims, said what the suspect has done "is the very negation of ... Islam," on the France-2 TV network.

The powerful fundamentalist Muslim organization UOIF asked all citizens "not to succumb to the panic of stigmatizing Muslims, which feeds Islamophobia."

In the case of Le Pen, it may already be too late.

"We have underestimated, I think, the rise of radical Islam in our country," Le Pen said. "We didn't want to see it, out of weakness or for electoral reasons, that recruiting is going on in our neighborhoods by political-religious groups."

Le Pen, who called national attention to the numbers of Muslims who pray in Paris streets for lack of space in prayer rooms, was among six presidential candidates present at Wednesday's solemn funeral services for three dead paratroopers in the city of Montauban, near Toulouse. Merah had claimed responsibility for those attacks.

Le Pen had stayed away from mourning prayers after Monday's killing of the Jewish rabbi and the children — when investigators focused their search on neo-Nazis and extreme rightists. Le Pen's National Front has long been seen as a vehicle to spread anti-Semitism.

Hollande said the fight against terrorism is "the combat of the entire nation," above all else.

Centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou said the slayings around Toulouse pose the question of "the state of French society, where there are explosive germs" and the "risk of importing conflicts" onto French soil.

Sarkozy, speaking as president at Wednesday's funeral ceremony for the paratroopers, vowed that terrorism "won't manage to fracture our national community."

However, Sarkozy has followed the lead of Le Pen in the past, allowing her to set the agenda so he can take up her themes and go after her far-right followers.

A young man in Toulouse who slightly knew the suspect said he was shocked and afraid.

"This person doesn't represent me," said Mehdi Nedder, 31. "What worries me is what society will say tomorrow in the bakery shops, at the butcher's or at the post office."