Nicolas Sarkozy

PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy is the underdog, and he knows it. Not a single poll has predicted he will win re-election on Sunday, and leading figures in his government are already lining up new jobs.

In televised interviews, Sarkozy’s on the defensive and paints himself as a victim. At campaign rallies, he’s boxer-like, punching the air, torso soaked with sweat within minutes of taking the podium. He relishes the combat, but after he leaves the stage, his face drains of color, his features lined with fatigue.

The dynamic French leader made his mark on the world arena but let down voters at home, and may well be out of a job within days.

Always the fighter, Sarkozy could confound pollsters and pull off a victory. At a sunny Paris rally in front of the Eiffel Tower on Tuesday, he looked more like the triumphant Sarkozy of the 2007 campaign.

But his challenger in Sunday’s runoff vote, Socialist Francois Hollande, is sounding increasingly confident, and his campaign rallies already feel like victory parties.

Even as the field of challengers has shifted throughout the campaign, Sarkozy has never climbed above second place in the polls.

In a surprising admission for the 57-year-old career politician, Sarkozy has acknowledged that he’s thinking about possible defeat and says he would quit politics if he loses.

“I will fight with all my strength to win your confidence, to protect and lead you and build a strong France, but if that is not your choice I will bow out. That’s the way it is, and I will have had a great life in politics,” Sarkozy said on RMC radio. “I’ll do something else. I don’t know what.”

It’s not over yet. Sarkozy scored 27 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections April 22, to Hollande’s 28 percent. Sarkozy may pick up more support from voters who handed far right candidate Marine Le Pen a surprisingly strong third place. And Sarkozy may get a last-minute boost from the final televised debate of the campaign on Wednesday night. Sarkozy has a sharp tongue and strong verbal sparring skills, while the jovial Hollande has been flustered in some recent appearances.

But millions of French voters are determined to prevent Sarkozy from winning a second term, and polls predict Hollande could win by as much as a 12-percent margin.

Sarkozy came into office in 2007 promising dramatic changes to France to better compete with emerging economies like China. After an initial wave of labor reforms, Sarkozy’s presidency was hit with the world financial meltdown, Europe’s debt crisis and France’s worst recession since World War II.

His momentum appeared to fizzle, and he became seen as too friendly with CEOs while France faces near-10 percent unemployment and sluggish economic prospects.

“Without workers, there would be no bosses,” said Christine Delorme, a 57-year-old factory worker marching Tuesday at a leftist May Day rally in Toulouse, one of many union-led marches around France. “I’m here to say no to Sarkozy, the president of the rich. We don’t want that anymore.”

Sarkozy entered this presidential campaign on the back foot, and met obstacle after obstacle.

Reports surfaced that Libya’s Gadhafi regime offered to finance Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. Critics compared Sarkozy to France’s Nazi occupiers. Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn suggested his political career was destroyed by Sarkozy’s cronies.

Sarkozy enjoyed a boost after his confident handling of the manhunt for a gunman who killed Jewish schoolchildren and paratroopers in March.

But he spent much of his campaign time denying, dismissing or denouncing criticism lobbed his way. He says the media is lined up against him and regularly accuses his critics of lying.

“What’s troubling in all this is the evasion, it’s the hypocrisy, it’s the lies,” he said, again, Monday.

His campaign team and aides officially refuse to talk about a plan B. But two of his aides have taken new jobs in recent weeks, along with three senior figures in leading government ministries. Some are staying in public service in less political roles, others are taking research or academic jobs.

Satirical puppet show “Les Guignols de l’info” has already made its election prediction: Its episode on Sunday showed first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, an Italian heiress and former supermodel, packing a suitcase for Switzerland, to avoid the 75-percent tax on very high incomes that Hollande has promised to impose.

Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: French presidential race has socialist ahead by 12 percent

People protest during a May Day rally in Barcelona, Spain on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of workers marked May Day in European cities with a mix of anger and gloom over imposed austerity measures.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MADRID — On the front lines of the world’s May Day protests this year, along with the traditional chants, banners and marches, a gamut of emotions flowed through the crowds: Anger. Fear. Elation. Despair.

With Europe’s unemployed denouncing austerity measures, Asia’s laborers demanding higher salaries and U.S. protesters condemning Wall Street, Tuesday’s demonstrations by hundreds of thousands were less a celebration of workers’ rights than a furious venting over spending cuts, tax hikes and soaring unemployment.

The protests came just days ahead of key elections in Greece and France, whose leaders have acutely felt popular anger over policies many feel are strangling any hopes of economic recovery. The rallies reflected deep pessimism in Spain, dealing with a fragile economy is in the cross-hairs of the European debt crisis.

Yet optimism and national pride emerged too. Over 100,000 turned out in Russia for May Day rallies that celebrated Vladimir Putin’s government. And tens of thousands of workers rallied with joy in France, hoping this would be the last week of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative leadership.

In the U.S., protesters lined major financial institutions in the country’s most high-profile Occupy Wall Street rallies since the encampments protesting the gap between the superrich and poor came down in the fall. Crowds blocked intersections in Oakland, Calif., trying to force businesses to shut down for not observing calls for a “general strike.” Police in riot gear faced dozens of Occupy activists marching in front of a Bank of America in New York City, chanting “Bank of America. Bad for America.”

Under a gray Madrid sky that reflected the dark national mood, 25-year Adriana Jaime turned out to march. Jaime speaks three languages and has a masters degree as a translator, but works for what she derided as peanuts in a university research project that has been cut from three years to three months due to a lack of funds.

“I am here because there is no future for the young people of this country,” Jaime said as many marchers carried black-and-white placards with the word NO and a pair of red scissors.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying desperately to cut a bloated deficit, restore investor confidence in Spain’s public finances, lower its 24.4 percent jobless rate, and fend off fears the country will soon need a bailout like Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

But Ana Lopez, a 44-year-old civil servant, argued the government is doing nothing to help workers and that the economic crisis is only benefiting banks.

“Money does not just disappear. It does not fly away. It just changes hands, and now it is with the banks,” Lopez said. “And the politicians are puppets of the banks.”

In France, tens of thousands of workers, leftists and union leaders marked May Day with glee, hoping that a presidential runoff vote Sunday will put a Socialist at the helm for the first time since 1988.

Protests took place all over the globe, in places such as Germany Russia; Chile; Argentina, Indonesia, the Phillipines, Taiwan and Cuba. Also known as International Workers’ Day, it is a commemoration of those killed striking during the Haymarket Riots of 1886.Many voters fear Sarkozy will erode France’s welfare and worker protections, and see him as too friendly with the rich.

“Sarkozy has allowed himself for too long to manhandle the lower classes,” said Dante Leonardi, a 24-year-old in Paris. “Today we must show ... that we want him to leave.”

Hollande has promised high taxes on the rich.

“We are going to choose Hollande because we want something else for France. We want to keep our jobs, we want to keep our industrial jobs, we want a new economy,” said protester Serge Tanguy.

Even in Germany, where the economy is churning and unemployment is at a record low, unions estimated that 400,000 people showed up at over 400 May Day rallies. The DGB union group sharply criticized Europe’s treaty enshrining fiscal discipline and the austerity measures across the continent, calling instead for a stimulus program to revive the 17-nation eurozone’s depressed economies.

In debt-crippled Greece, more than 2,000 people marched through central Athens in subdued May Day protests centered on the country’s harsh austerity program.

“(We need) new policies that will satisfy the needs of workers and not of bosses and banks,” said Ilias Vrettakos of the ADEDY union.

In Moscow, the mood was resolutely pro-government, as 100,000 people — including President Dmitry Medvedev and President-elect Putin — took part in the main May Day march.

The two leaders happily chatted with participants as many banners criticized the Russian opposition movement. One read “Spring has come, the swamp has dried up,” referring to Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square, the site of some of the largest opposition demonstrations.

Communists and leftists held a separate May Day rally in Moscow that attracted about 3,000. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov decried international economic troubles, saying that “without socialism, without respect for the working people who create all the main value in this land, it is not possible to get out of this crisis.”

Police arrested 22 people at the rally, and violence was largely contained at the protests.

After a workers’ day march in Santiago, Chile, some protesters threw objects at closed businesses, breaking the windows of several banks and pulling out furniture to build a bonfire in the street. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons, and arrested an undetermined number of people. In Argentina, small explosion went off outside the EU headquarters in Buenos Aires before dawn, breaking a few windows, but there were no injuries and no one was arrested.

Earlier, thousands of workers protested in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and other Asian nations, demanding wage hikes. They said their take-home pay could not keep up with rising food, energy and housing prices and school fees.

An unemployed father of six set himself on fire in southern Pakistan in an apparent attempt to kill himself because he was mired in poverty, according to police officer Nek Mohammed. Abdul Razzaq Ansari, 45, suffered burns on 40 percent of his body but survived.

In Manila, capital of the Philippines, more than 8,000 union members clad in red shirts and waving red streamers marched under a brutal sun to a heavily barricaded bridge near the Malacanang presidential palace, which teemed with thousands of riot police.

Another group of left-wing workers later burned a huge effigy of President Benigno Aquino III, depicting him as a lackey of the United States and big business. Aquino has rejected their calls for a $3 daily pay hike, which he warned could worsen inflation and spark layoffs.

In Indonesia, thousands of protesters demanding higher wages paraded through traffic-clogged streets in the capital, Jakarta, where 16,000 police and soldiers were deployed. Protests were also held in Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

In Havana, Cubans marked May Day not with protest but with a mass demonstration dedicated to “preserving and perfecting socialism,” the slogan on a huge banner carried by medical workers who led the march.

Thousands filed through the capital’s Plaza of the Revolution in front of President Raul Castro and Cabinet officials, waving red, white and blue Cuban flags.

“Country, revolution and socialism are inextricably fused together,” said Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of Cuba’s central labor union.

Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: May Day protesters focus economic rage

BRUSSELS — For more than a year, European Union officials have called for austerity, austerity and more austerity as a means to solve Europe’s debt crisis. Now people who don’t want to pay the price are taking their fight from the streets to the ballot box.

Governments have fallen, more are at risk and in some places, a stark streak of nationalism is on the rise that could swing Europe ever deeper into a fortress mentality.

At stake is the future of the continent, where countries rich and poor are struggling with mountains of debt and moribund economies — a toxic combination that often seems to require contradictory remedies of belt-tightening and economic stimulus.

Increasingly, the long focus on austerity is convincing Europeans that the German-led mantra of fiscal responsibility is creating a vicious circle of more misery leading to lower growth — leading to even greater debt distress.

“What is happening in Europe is the austerity drive is actually slowing down the necessary rebalancing of European economies,” said Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform.

Austerity measures aimed at balancing national budgets have led to drastic spending cuts by governments across the continent, including layoffs and pay cuts for government workers, slashing of key services including welfare and development programs, as well as tax hikes to boost government revenues.

Many in Europe have had enough of this harsh medicine.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the architects of the EU’s response to the financial crisis, is in danger of being turned out of office in next month’s runoff with Francois Hollande — a Socialist who is promising not to cut, but to increase public spending by €20 billion by 2017.

Hollande is also promising to re-negotiate a much-vaunted budgetary pact among 25 EU countries meant to enforce national fiscal discipline.

Greece votes in elections next month in which fringe parties hostile to international bailouts requiring steep austerity are expected to make big gains — possibly endangering efforts by the current technocratic government to rein in the nation’s debt.

And the Netherlands’ 18-month-old conservative coalition resigned this week after it failed to agree on cutting its own budget deficit to meet the EU limits it had demanded so fiercely of other countries.

Beyond that, in the Czech Republic, almost 100,000 people rallied in Prague’s downtown Wenceslas Square last weekend to protest government reforms and cuts, calling on the government to resign in one of the biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism. And earlier this year, tens of thousands of Romanians bitter about savage public-sector wage cuts took to the streets and the government collapsed.

Analysts say it’s no surprise that people are fed up.

“I don’t think there are any examples of countries accepting endless austerity and downward standards of living,” Tilford said. “There has to be light at the of the tunnel.”

Voters may have good reasons to reject unrelenting cuts. But in their desire to avoid pain, they may also be prompting politicians to put off decisions that Europe must take to remain competitive globally.

Many experts say government protections for workers need to be loosened — for example, by making it easier for employers to hire and fire workers — in order to halt the flight of jobs from Europe to regions deemed more business-friendly.

And the anger appears to be driving voters to the extremes. In the first round of the French presidential election last weekend, nearly one voter in five cast their ballot for the National Front, a hard-right party previously known primarily for its anti-immigraton platform.

That, along with the 11 percent showing by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, shows a high level of anger, said Piotr Kaczynski, a research fellow at the Brussels-based Center for European Studies.

“The big winners of the French elections are the extreme parties — extreme right and extreme left,” which together won more than 30 percent of the vote, Kaczynski said.

The rise of the fringes is not limited to France. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is marching ahead in the polls — and may win a dozen or so seats in parliament. And it was a right-wing politician stridently critical of Islam who brought down the government of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte this week. Geert Wilders, whose support was critical to Rutte’s minority government, decided to withdraw his support over the government’s budget-cutting plans.

“With the Rutte government’s resignation, the pro-cyclical austerity course in Europe has once again proven to be the biggest disposal program for governments in recent history,” Germany’s Financial Times Deutschland commented in an editorial Tuesday.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble criticized Wilders’ actions in acid tones.

“We have always known that, if one votes for radical right-wing euro-skeptic parties and xenophobes, one makes democracy not more stable but more unstable,” Schaeuble said. “That can be seen now in Holland. So my advice is, don’t vote that way.”

But as Europe evolves, the Germans may wind up the big losers. They have been the most insistent on enforcing austerity, warning of the “moral hazard” of helping out countries that have not endured sufficient pain as a result of past lapses in discipline.

Now, it is possible that the future of Europe may lie with politicians like Hollande, who is favored to defeat Sarkozy in the presidential runoff. Hollande has promised to increase taxes on the rich, create 60,000 new teaching jobs and subsidize 150,000 jobs for young people.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was still staunchly defending her insistence on austerity.

“I want to say clearly, it is not the case that we say saving solves every problem but, if you at home talk about how you want to shape your life tolerably, then one of the first conditions is that you somehow get by with what you earn,” she said.

Still, at least some economists are now calling for a return to priming the pump — even at the cost of higher deficits.

“There can be no fiscal sustainability across Europe as a whole without a return to economic growth,” Tilford said.

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Europeans tired of austerity are voting for extremists

NANTERRE, France — She calls herself the anti-system candidate who will ensure social justice for the have-nots and purify a France losing its voice to Europe and threatened by massive immigration and
rampant Islamization.

The message of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has seduced thousands, kept her consistently in third place in polls and scared President Nicolas Sarkozy as he seeks a second term.

The conservative Sarkozy is trying to woo those who would vote for Le Pen in Sunday’s first round of balloting to bridge the gap with frontrunner Francois Hollande, a Socialist whom all polls show will win the May 6 election.

In an interview Wednesday on BFM-TV, Sarkozy named her directly, asking, “The vote for Marine Le Pen serves whom? Francois Hollande.”

Le Pen, putting the accent on patriotism, deplores what she says is France’s loss of sovereignty to the European Union and to globalization, the nation’s perceived loss of identity and what she claims are real dangers hidden within France’s Muslim community, is the largest in western Europe.

Le Pen wants France, and other euro zone nations, to give up the euro currency. She wants to drastically reduce the number of immigrants — to 10,000 a year — and, a top theme, to crack down for good on what she claims is the growing footprint of Islamic fundamentalists in France.

The image Marine Le Pen projects is less linked to the extreme-right than that of her father, said Nonna Meyer, an expert on the extreme-right vote at the prestigious university Sciences Politiques.

Meyer said that it is impossible at this point to predict how Le Pen will fare in Sunday’s balloting because there are too many unknowns, including the level of voter turnout.

“I think there really is no chance that Marine Le Pen will be in the second round,” she added.

French incumbent President and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate for the French 2012 presidential elections Nicolas Sarkozy arrives on stage to give a speech during a campaign meeting in Nancy, eastern France, Monday, April 2, 2012.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

PARIS — French presidential candidate Francois Hollande, leading in polls but lacking in ideas that stick in voters’ minds, finally dropped a bombshell: As president, he would levy a 75 percent tax on anyone who makes more than
€1 million ($1.33 million) a year.

The flashy idea from the normally bland Socialist proved wildly popular, fanning hostility toward executive salaries and forcing President Nicolas Sarkozy to defend his ostentatious friendships with the rich. It also unleashed debate in the French press about whether the wealthy would decamp for gentler tax pastures.

As much as France likes the plan, it does not seem to have assured Hollande’s victory, which, just three weeks before the first round of voting, is growing more uncertain as Sarkozy reaps the benefits of projecting presidential mettle following France’s shooting attacks.

Polls put the two men neck-and-neck in the first round April 22, and show Sarkozy gaining on Hollande for the decisive runoff May 6.

Centrist candidate Francois Bayrou has dismissed the plan as absurd — contending that when all was added up, the top bracket would be taxed at nearly 100 percent. Many economists are also scratching their heads over the tax — seeing it as dangerous at worst and ineffective at best — and even Hollande admits it’s not meant to balance the budget.

The “Fouquet’s tax” — so named by some in the press after the tony restaurant where Sarkozy celebrated his 2007 presidential win — is riding and in part fueling a resurgence of the French left. The tax-the-rich proposal has garnered as much as 65 percent approval in some polls.All that has helped Hollande, often perceived as amiable but uninspiring, to distinguish himself from his main opponent, said Jean-Daniel Levy, a pollster and political analyst.

“Nicolas Sarkozy has a double difficulty: On the one hand, he is perceived as a president who is close to the rich, which is not a good sign in France. And he is also seen as a president who oversaw inegalitarian policies,” he said. The tax, he added, “allows Francois Hollande to take control again and to paint a negative portrait of Nicolas Sarkozy.”

But there is a danger that Hollande hit the nerve too well.

Many voters have swept right past Hollande and into the camp of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has electrified voters with calls for a new French revolution and who some polls say will come in third or fourth in the first round of elections. That could bleed support away from Hollande in the first round, depriving him of crucial momentum going into the second one.Antipathy for the rich is widespread in France, where wealth is meant to be discreet and climbing the social ladder to build yourself a mansion isn’t a common narrative.

Hollande himself once famously declared “I do not like the rich” — a statement that only boosted his political standing among those who think wealth should be redistributed instead of accumulated.

Following his 75-percent tax announcement, front pages treated the rich like some strange, migrating species, declaring that they would decamp to Belgium if the tax was put in place. One presidential candidate, Dominique de Villepin, himself quite wealthy, warned France not to “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

While there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest the wealthy are eyeing the border, tax lawyer Sandra Hazan said there’s nothing new in rich people fleeing France. But they don’t pull up the stakes simply because taxes are high.

“The problem is not the level of taxation you suffer,” said Hazan, who heads the tax department at law firm Salans. “The problem is when you cannot anticipate how much you will be paying.”

The French tax code has long been unpredictable, she said, but it has become even more so in recent months. As Sarkozy’s administration has tried to keep a series of budget targets that are central to his credibility and reassure markets that France can manage its debt, the number of changes to tax law have come fast and furious.

When he put taxes at the center of his campaign, Hollande unleashed a new flood of tax proposals, creating more uncertainty. Sarkozy, too, has vowed to hunt down French people who have fled the country purely to escape high taxes and make them pay the difference between what they’re paying in their haven and what they would have to pay in France.

In all the discussion about how much the rich make and how much they should pay, Sarkozy has also been put on the spot — again — about a lavish party to celebrate his presidential victory at Fouquet’s and a vacation on a friend’s yacht he took shortly after. These moves quickly earned him the moniker “President Bling Bling,” and he has struggled ever since to shed the image of a man too comfortable with money.

Five years after the victory party and the yacht trip, Sarkozy is still fielding questions about them. He most recently defended the vacation in an interview not long after Hollande’s proposal when he called it a last-ditch attempt to save his marriage to Cecilia, whom he divorced not long after taking office.

But Hollande has struggled to harness this momentum.

Hollande bungled the announcement of his new tax, initially saying it would apply to those bringing in more than €1 million — about $1.33 million — a month, before clarifying he meant a year.

He has also failed to provide a coherent narrative for why the tax is needed. He started out by saying that, in tough times, the rich had to pay their fair share, before later conceding it would only bring in about €100 million to €300 million each year. France’s public debt is €1.7 trillion ($2.3 trillion).

Then he said it would put pressure on companies to lower ballooning salaries, noting that that executive pay for France’s 40 largest public companies — the ones that make up its CAC-40 stock index — rose 34 percent in 2010, while most of Europe was fighting for its very existence.

In the end, Hollande has settled on casting the tax as simply the right thing to do.

“It’s not a question of return,” he told RTL radio station. “It’s a question of morality.”

Police officers walk next to the building in Toulouse, France, Wednesday March 21, 2012 where a suspect in the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school had been spotted.

TOULOUSE, France — Riot police set off explosions outside an apartment building early Thursday in an effort to force the surrender of a gunman who boasted of bringing France “to its knees” with an al-Qaida-linked terror spree that killed seven people.

As the standoff dragged into a second day, hundreds of heavily armed police cordoned off the five-story building in Toulouse where the 24-year-old suspect, Mohamed Merah, had been holed up.

An Interior Ministry official said the suspect had gone back on a previous decision to turn himself in — and that police blew up the shutters outside the apartment window to pressure him to surrender.

The Toulouse prosecutor, Michel Valet, told The Associated Press: “I cannot confirm that the assault has started. It’s not as simple as that. We are waiting.”

Authorities said the shooter, a French citizen of Algerian descent, had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he claimed to have received training from al-Qaida.

They said he told negotiators he killed a rabbi and three young children at a Jewish school on Monday and three French paratroopers last week to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan, as well as a government ban last year on face-covering Islamic veils.

“He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees,” Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference.

The standoff began when a police attempt at around 3 a.m. to detain Merah erupted into a firefight. Two police were wounded, triggering on-and-off negotiations with the suspect that lasted into the night.

Police cut electricity and gas to the building, then quietly closed in to wait out the suspect.

Authorities were “counting on his great fatigue and weakening,” said Didier Martinez of the SGP police union, adding the siege could go on for hours. Street lights were also cut, making Merah more visible to officers with night vision goggles in case of an assault.

French authorities — like others in Europe — have long been concerned about “lone-wolf” attacks by young, Internet-savvy militants who self-radicalize online since they are harder to find and track. Still, it was the first time a radical Islamic motive has been ascribed to killings in France in years.

Merah espoused a radical brand of Islam and had been to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region twice and to the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan for training, Molins said.

He said the suspect had plans to kill another soldier, prompting the police raid.

The gunman’s brother and mother were detained early in the day. Molins said the 29-year-old brother, Abdelkader, had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq, but was never charged.

Wednesday’s siege was part of France’s biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. The chase began after France’s worst-ever school shooting Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers beginning March 11, killings that have horrified the country and frozen campaigning for the French presidential election next month.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term, vowed to defend France.

“Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community,” Sarkozy declared Wednesday on national television before heading to funeral services for the two paratroopers killed and another injured Thursday in Montauban, near Toulouse.

The suspect repeatedly promised to turn himself in, then halted negotiations. Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said police were prepared to storm the building if he did not surrender. After bouts of deadly terrorist attacks in France in the 1980s and 1990s, France beefed up its legal arsenal — now seen as one of the most effective in Western Europe and a reference for countries including the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sarkozy’s office said President Barack Obama called him Wednesday to express condolences to the families of the victims and praise French police for tracking down the suspect. The statement said France and the United States are “more determined than ever to fight terrorist barbarity together.”

In recent years, French counterterrorism officials have focused mainly on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of Osama bin Laden’s network that has its roots in an insurgent group in Algeria, a former French colony.

Molins said Merah’s first trip to Afghanistan ended with him being picked up by Afghan police “who turned him over to the American army who put him on the first plane to France.”

“He had foreseen other killings, notably he foresaw another attack this morning, targeting a soldier,” Molins said, adding also planned to attack two police officers. “He claims to have always acted alone.”

Merah has a long record as a juvenile delinquent with 15 convictions, Molins added.

An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Merah had been under surveillance for years for having “fundamentalist” Islamic views.

During the standoff, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders. The suspect’s apartment was on the ground floor of the postwar building, locals said.

French authorities said Merah threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out a window in exchange for a device to talk to authorities, but had more weapons like an AK-47 assault rifle. Gueant said other weapons had been found in his car.

“The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials,” Gueant added, explaining authorities want to “take him alive ... It is imperative for us.”

Delage said a key to tracking Merah was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle he reportedly used in all three attacks — a dark gray one that had been stolen March 6. The frame was painted white, the color witnesses saw in the school attack.

According to Delage, one of his brothers went to a motorcycle sales outfit to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions. The vendor then contacted police, Delage said.

The shooter has proved to be a meticulous operator. At the site of the second paratrooper killing, police found the clip for the gun used in all three attacks — but no fingerprints or DNA on it.

Those slain at the Jewish school, all of French-Israeli nationality, were buried in Israel on Wednesday as relatives sobbed inconsolably. The bodies of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 3, and 8-year-old Myriam Monsenego had been flown there earlier in the day.

At the funeral ceremony, Myriam’s eldest brother, Avishai, in his 20s, wailed and called to God to give his parents the strength “to endure the worst trial that can be endured.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, meanwhile, denounced the deadly shooting attack at the Jewish school and condemned the link to Palestinian children.

“It’s time for criminals to stop using the Palestinian cause to justify their terrorist actions,” Fayyad said in a statement. “The children of Palestine want nothing but dignified lives for themselves and for all the children.”

Before he was killed last year, bin Laden stressed the importance of focusing on the Palestinian cause. In what is believed to be a draft letter to al-Qaida’s top lieutenant, the al-Qaida leader wrote about the need for the terror group’s affiliates to tie their operations to broad concern for Palestine instead of local grievances, according to declassified documents obtained in last year’s bin Laden raid that were reviewed by the Washington Post.

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: French riot police force gunman to surrender

An unidentified man comforts schoolchildren as they leave their Jewish private school after a gunman opened fire killing several people in Toulouse, southwestern France, Monday, March 19, 2012. A father and his two sons were among four people who died Monday when a gunman opened fire in front of a Jewish school, the Toulouse prosecutor said Monday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

TOULOUSE, France — A motorbike assailant opened fire with two handguns Monday in front of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse, killing a rabbi, his two young sons and a girl. One witness described him as a man chasing small children and “looking to kill.”

One of the guns he used also had been fired in two other deadly motorbike attacks in the area that targeted paratroopers of North African and French Caribbean origin, officials said. French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested one person was responsible for all the killings.

A massive manhunt was under way and the terrorism alert level was raised to its highest level ever across a swath of southern France surrounding Toulouse. Hundreds of officers increased security at schools, synagogues and mosques around the country, and Sarkozy said 14 riot police units “will secure the region as long as this criminal” hasn’t been caught.

France has seen a low drumroll of anti-Semitic incidents but no attack so deadly targeting Jews since the early 1980s. This country is particularly sensitive toward its Jewish community because of its World War II past of abetting Nazi occupiers in deporting Jewish citizens.

French prosecutors were studying possible terrorist links but the motive for all three attacks was unclear. Still, issues about religious minorities and race have emerged prominently in France’s presidential campaign, in which the conservative Sarkozy has taken his traditional hard line against immigration.

News that the gun was used in attacks last week around Toulouse fueled suspicions that a serial killer was targeting not only Jews, but French minorities. A police official said the same .45-caliber handgun was used in two previous attacks that killed three paratroopers and seriously injured another. In all three cases, the attacker came on a motorcycle, apparently alone, and then sped away.

Monday’s attack was as quick as it was terrifying. A 30-year-old rabbi, Jonathan Sandler, and two of his sons were killed just before classes started at the Ozar Hatorah school, a junior high and high school in a quiet neighborhood, Toulouse Prosecutor Michel Valet said. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said the sons were 4- and 5-years-old.

Another child, the 7-year-old daughter of the school principal, was also killed, school officials said. Valet said a 17-year-old boy was also seriously wounded.

“He shot at everything he had in front of him, children and adults,” Valet said. “The children were chased inside the school.”Nicole Yardeni, a local Jewish official who saw security video of the attack from the single camera near the school gate, described the shooter as “determined, athletic and well-toned.” She said he wore a helmet with the visor down.

“You see a man park his motorcycle, start to shoot, enter the school grounds and chase children to catch one and shoot a bullet into her head,” Yardeni said. “It’s unbearable to watch and you can’t watch anymore after that. He was looking to kill.”

The bodies were brought in hearses to the school Monday night for an evening vigil. All of the dead had joint Israeli-French citizenship and will be buried in Israel, the Israel Foreign Ministry said.In Monday’s attack, which took place about 8 a.m., the killer also used a .35-caliber gun, the police official said. At least 15 shots were fired at the school, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

A police union official in Paris said the shooter knew weapons well to handle a .45-caliber handgun plus a second gun.

“The shooter is someone used to holding arms,” Nicolas Comte of the SGP FO police union. “He knows what he’s doing, like an ex-military guy.”

Sarkozy rushed to Toulouse to visit the school with Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organizations.

“This act was odious, it cannot remain unpunished,” Sarkozy said.

“We do not know the motivations of this criminal. Of course, by attacking children and a teacher who were Jewish, the anti-Semitic motivation appears obvious. Regarding our soldiers, we can imagine that racism and murderous madness are in this case linked,” he said Monday night after returning to Paris.

Sarkozy’s challengers for the presidential vote in April and May also hurried to the scene.

The slain rabbi taught at the school and reportedly arrived from Jerusalem last September with his wife and children.

France has the largest Jewish community in Western Europe, estimated at about 500,000, as well as its largest Muslim population, about 5 million.

Toulouse, a southwestern city north of the Pyrenees mountains, has about 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in its overall population of 440,000, said Jean-Paul Amoyelle, the president of the Ozar Hatorah school network in France. He said its Jewish community is well integrated into the city.

The school targeted Monday, behind a high white wall, was cordoned off by police, who then escorted other children out as forensics police combed the scene. Six bullet holes circled an aluminum fence that surrounds the school.

One officer held a distraught girl, her face in her hands. A mother and son wearing a yarmulke walked away from the site, their faces visibly pained.

“Everything leads one to believe that these were racist and anti-Semitic acts,” Toulouse Mayor Pierre Cohen said on BFM-TV.

“This is a Jewish school, well identified as such, and it is normal to think that anti-Semitism is at cause,” CRIF said in a statement.

Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told The Associated Press the suspect made his getaway on a dark-colored scooter — just as the assailant or assailants did in the two deadly shootings last week.

On March 10, a gunman on a motorbike shot and killed a paratrooper in Toulouse. Last Thursday, a gunman on a motorbike opened fire on three uniformed paratroopers at a bank machine in Montauban, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Toulouse, killing two and critically wounding the other.

The mother of one student, Corinne Tordjeman, had just finished dropping off her 14-year-old son Alexandre when the attacker came. Alexandre described hearing the shots and parents shouting and how he saw blood all over the ground. Her younger daughter was supposed to go to a birthday party this weekend with the girl who was killed.

The killer “knew that killing Jewish children would make a lot of noise, but tomorrow it could be a Christian, a Muslim, or anyone else,” she said.

One man who lives near the school had just spoken with the rabbi.

“I said “Bonjour” to him like normal,” said the 29-year-old, asking to be identified only by his first name, Baroukh.

“Then he went out into the school entrance. I heard the shots and I turned around and saw him on the ground. He looked dead. But I didn’t have much time to see who did it because I panicked and started running away.”

Paris police said Monday they are also investigating threats against two synagogues in Paris from last week. A police official said there was no apparent link between those threats and Monday’s shooting.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “whether it was a terror attack or a hate crime, the loss of life is unacceptable.”The U.S. government said it joined France in condemning this unprovoked and outrageous act of violence in the strongest possible terms.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims, and we stand with a community in grief,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Special prayers were offered Monday in Paris and a minute of silence in all French schools is to be held today.

Printed on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 as: Four slain in French Jewish school

PARIS — France and Germany plan to push for fundamental changes to the European treaty governing the euro in order to save the currency, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Thursday.

Sarkozy said in a speech in the southern port city of Toulon that during their meeting in Paris on Monday he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will unveil proposals to try to lift Europe out of its debt crisis and “guarantee” its future.

“France will push with Germany for a new European treaty refounding and rethinking the organization of Europe.The Maastricht Treaty has revealed itself to be imperfect,” Sarkozy said, referring to the pact that led to the creation of the euro currency in 1999.

Changes in the treaty would have to be approved by all 27 EU members, 10 of whom don’t use the euro currency.

Sarkozy said the process of reforming the treaty “will be long and difficult” but is necessary to protect Europe’s place in the world.

PARIS — The leaders of France and Britain will make a quick visit to Libya on Thursday, an official with Libya’s governing body said, becoming the first foreign heads of government to travel to the country in the post-Moammar Gadhafi era.

There was no official confirmation of the visit by the offices of President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister
David Cameron.

“Our policy is never to comment on the prime minister’s schedule,” a spokesman for Cameron said on  condition of anonymity.

Suleiman Fortia, a representative of the Libyan city of Misrata to the National Transitional Council, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the two leaders were expected to visit.

France and Britain pressed for NATO action to protect civilians against Gadhafi’s troops, and a French aircraft was the first to fly in the air campaign over Libya. France was the first country to recognize the council, known as the NTC, the closest thing to a government that Libya currently has.

“Those who helped us, we are so happy to receive them as the first leaders to come,” Fortia said.

Sarkozy and Cameron will visit Benghazi and Tripoli, according to Fortia. “We also invite them to visit Misrata because this is the place which showed Gadhafi how Libya is strong,” he said. He added that he did not know whether the invitation would be accepted during Thursday’s trip.

The western port city of Misrata was a stronghold of the revolt against Gadhafi’s 42-year-long rule, playing a central role in the war. The former rebels swept into the capital Aug. 21.

Gadhafi is being hunted down but numerous close family members have fled to neighboring Algeria and to Niger.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also expected to visit Libya this week.