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.
“With the resources in Toulouse, we cannot be permanently outside every school, synagogue and mosque,” Martinez added.
That tensions over immigration and economic change, which exist across France, should surface in Toulouse has been a blow to the self-confidence of a city that has reinvented itself.
It remains steeped in a history in which it played the role of capital for the independent-minded barons and people of the Languedoc - the southern swathe of territory where French was a foreign language and which long resisted giving full obedience to Paris, a process only completed after the 1789 revolution.
A cockpit of religious wars in the 13th Century, when popes and kings of France crusaded with blood and fire against the Albigensian, or Cathar, heretics of the region, Toulouse saw the birth of the Dominican order of friars, whose simple piety was aimed at appeasing those who rebelled against church excesses.
In the same period, Toulouse’s Jews were driven out, ending centuries in which a community survived, and sometimes thrived, despite a local custom that saw Jewish elders forced to submit to ritual beatings by Christians as a form of penance, prompted by church teachings about Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus.
In the 20th century, a city whose Renaissance centre recalls the riches of the trade in “pastel”, the blue dye woad, became a nursery for the aviation industry when German forces occupied France’s heavy industrial heartland in the north. And when civil war tore Spain apart in the 1930s, Toulouse welcomed thousands of refugees, whose culture still influences the city today.
“It was a very peaceful city,” said former mayor Philippe Douste-Blazy, who was once also France’s foreign minister.
“But it’s true there’s been a steady rise in crime with the increase in population.”
One Algerian living in the city for the past five years, 37-year-old Ahmed, was no less stunned than the politicians: “How can this sort of thing happen in Toulouse? I feel sick inside.”
Local industry, which gave birth to the Caravelle jetliner in the 1950s, the supersonic Concorde and the growing Airbus fleet of airliners, has also brought its dangers. Thirty-one Toulousains were killed in 2001 when the AZF chemical blew up.
But the principal effect of the thriving factories around the city’s periphery has been a population boom, adding some 20,000 people a year to an urban area that is now home to about a million, nearly one in 10 of whom is a university student.
A local Jewish group estimates there are about 2,500 Jewish families in Toulouse many of whom fled France’s former colonies in North Africa after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. A Muslim association has estimated there are some 35,000 Muslims in town.
Aside from jobs, the city has much to offer those drawn to the southwest. The industrial boom has brought investment in public theatres and other entertainments, a metro underground railway and a host of other infrastructure.
And then there are the timeless charms of the local way of life: it boasts a rich culture, delivered in a distinctive twang; a sporting heritage in which the local rugby team is a source of pride, one of the world powers in the game; and, of course, the cuisine - from rich local wines and Armagnac brandy, to fois gras duck liver and cassoulet, a bean stew often featuring the garlicky local sausage, saucisse de Toulouse.
Monday’s deaths have soured the good life, for now. Along with a number of other festivities and performances, the Carnival the city was due to hold this week has been cancelled.
Additional reporting and writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Geert De Clercq and Alastair Macdonald