In the easterly part of Toulouse, where the detached houses range from washed white to poached salmon and burnt peach, sits the Ohr Torah school. Set within a formidable compound, gated behind walls flanked by security cameras, it has been this way for a long time, for the safety and security of the children. Since last March, however, the walls have become a little higher, the front gate a little sturdier, the security cameras more numerous.
For it was at this Jewish day school, then called Ozar Hatorah, that on March 19 2012, Mohammed Merah gunned down Jonathan Sandler, a rabbi, and his two sons Aryeh, six, and Gabriel, three. Rabbi Sandler was shot as he tried to save his sons, while one of his boys was killed as he attempted to crawl away to safety.
Myriam Monsonego, aged eight, the daughter of the headmaster, Rabbi Yaacov Monsonego, was also murdered. After killing Rabbi Sandler and his two sons, Merah chased Myriam across the school playground, grabbing her by her hair. With the pistol at point-blank range, the murderer’s weapon jammed. Merah kept a grip on Myriam as he calmly changed to a .45 calibre hand-gun and fired it while holding it to her temple.
Merah grew up on a housing estate within Les Izards in the far reaches of northern Toulouse. He was said to have been a loner, and became radicalised in the French prison system. He watched terrorist videos on the internet, and was involved in a network that extended to Pakistan and Afghanistan, which he visited.
To this extent, then, Merah was an exception but, sadly, it would be a mistake to view March 19 as a substantial break from normality.
It is true that, after Merah’s attacks — which were not exclusively antisemitic but included the murders of French soldiers in uniform — there was a spike in assaults on Jews throughout France in March and April. In 2012, the SPCJ (the French equivalent of the Community Security Trust) recorded 614 antisemitic acts, a 58 per cent increase over 2011. Within that, the number of physical and verbal attacks increased by 82 per cent.
But the problem in Toulouse — and in France generally — runs deeper. As Nicole Yardéni, President of Crif Midi-Pyrénées (a regional section of the French Jewish umbrella body) points out, the statistics for 2012 come after 12 years of heightened antisemitism, beginning in 2000 after the Camp David talks collapsed and the Second Intifada began. In 2004, there were almost 1,000 recorded hate crimes, and in 2009 — the year of Operation Cast Lead — there were 832. As Marc Sztulman, Secretary General of Crif Midi-Pyrénées put it, the charge has always been there, but “Merah was the dynamite”.
On a day-to-day basis, the most visible and consistent threat to the 20,000-30,000 Jews of Toulouse — over 90 per cent of whom are of Sephardi origin — comes from within the Muslim community. The specific problem in Toulouse, unlike Paris and other cities, Ms Yardéni asserts, is the “lack of a charismatic Muslim leader”.
Crif and the other Jewish associations in Toulouse have repeatedly attempted to reach out to the city’s imams but found them lacking. “The imams’ speeches are more hateful than they were 10 years ago,” Ms Yardéni says, a reflection of the atmosphere on the street, on satellite television and the internet.
Like the rest of France, Toulouse suffers from unemployment and a lack of education and opportunities for those living in the working-class banlieues. For Toulouse’s Muslims, there is an “absence of a positive identity”, Ms Yardéni believes, but also they “don’t see how they can belong” within a society that has failed to provide a satisfactory model for integration.
There are also problems emanating from the far-left and the far-right. On the one hand, there is a very active anti-Zionist socialist and communist left. On the other, although Marine Le Pen has made attempts to appear moderate in her recent election campaign, the far-right continues to hold dear the idea of “France pour les Français de souche” — France for the “true French”. This excludes all immigrants, including Jews. The problem of skinheads and neo-Nazis is also a source of anxiety for Toulouse Jews.
The mayor of Toulouse, Pierre Cohen, is Jewish on his father’s side, and the Jewish community has had a very good relationship with the municipality. However, his instinctive secularism means he does not always wish to be seen to be doing too much for the Jewish community and, as Ms Yardéni puts it, “doesn’t want to hear all the time about the problems of disintegration”.
On a national level, Ms Yardéni believes there is a greater understanding of the problems facing French Jewry. François Hollande has said: “The Jews of France should be aware that the Republic will do everything to protect them. Guaranteeing their safety is a national cause.”
To the Jews of Toulouse, Mr Hollande’s November visit to the city with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was as important as Jacques Chirac’s declaration in 1995 that the fascist Vichy regime was not an aberration but part of the French national story, and that the whole nation bore responsibility for collaboration and the Holocaust.