Killings sour good life for high-flying Toulouse

Tue Mar 20, 2012 4:57pm EDT
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By John Irish

TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - From the ancient university at its rose-pink mediaeval heart to the booming aerospace plants that now fill its sunny skies with jetstreams, Toulouse, fast-growing old capital of the south, is a city of dreams for many in France.

All the more shocking then that a nightmare killer, driven it seems by race and religious hatreds, is stalking its streets, having shot dead three Jewish children and a rabbi on Monday after also murdering three soldiers of North African origin.

"It's an exceptionally open and welcoming city, where the lifestyle of the southwest reigns supreme," said Gerard Bapt, a local member of parliament, on Tuesday, referencing the French image of the region as one of sunshine and song, hearty cuisine and a certain raffish insouciance toward the business of life.

"So something like this comes as a shock for us."

A crossroads since Roman times between the Mediterranean and Atlantic and routes from the north to Spain across the Pyrenees, Toulouse has boomed in recent decades as a home to European plane maker Airbus, the French space agency CNES and a hothouse of researchers clustered around its 800-year-old university.

But if the city, now jostling with older industrial hubs in the north for the rank of France's third biggest, has been a magnet for engineers and others seeking a good life in the rolling green hinterland and elegant, pink-brick squares of "La Ville Rose", it is also a magnet for many poorer immigrants.

In Le Mirail, a gigantic housing project of the 1950s, built like many in France on the ill-served fringes of the town, live some 100,000 people, many with roots in Africa or the Caribbean. Many have struggled for decades to find a place in society. There have been frequent clashes with police, who complain of stretched resources and a rise in petty crime across the city.

"While the population has shot up, police resources have stagnated," complained Didier Martinez, a police trade union representative, explaining in part what local people say was a reduction in protection for the Jewish school.   Continued...

People observe a minute of silence at Capitole's place in Toulouse March 20, 2012 to pay tribute to the four victims killed by a gunman at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday. REUTERS/Jean-Philippe Arles