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CRIME

‘Known radical’ killed in shootout after knife attack on French police

A "known radical" suspected of carrying out a knife attack in France died from injuries sustained in a shootout with police Friday, hours badly wounding a female officer in another act of violence against police.

'Known radical' killed in shootout after knife attack on French police
Armed officers near the scene of the attack in La-Chapelle-sur-Erdre. Photo: Loic Venance/AFP

The man, who was on a terrorist watch-list according to the interior ministry, had been on the run after the attack in La Chapelle-sur-Erdre near the western city of Nantes.

A total of 250 officers were trying to find him, and two gendarmes were wounded in the exchange of fire that resulted in his arrest, authorities said.

No motive for the stabbing has emerged, but the attacker was “a known radical and suffering from a very serious psychiatric illness”, one source involved in the investigation said.

After stabbing the officer at a police station, inflicting life-threatening injuries, the suspect stole her service weapon and fled on foot.

He then broke into the flat of a young woman, holding her there, and it was from there he fired on the gendarmes, prosecutor Pierre Sennes said.

The police officer he had stabbed was taken to hospital and later declared to be out of danger.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the attempted murder of the police officer and the gendarmes, and for the sequestration of the young woman.

“My first thoughts go to the police officer who was seriously wounded,” Prime Minister Jean Castex wrote on Twitter.

“She has all my support and… the support of the entire government.”

‘On watch-list’

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, visited the scene in the afternoon.

“This French-born French national, around 40 years old and known to police services, was released from prison in 2016 where he was pointed out because of a strict practice of Islam and radicalisation”, he said.

That had led to his inclusion on a watch-list of potential terrorist sympathisers, he added.

Arrested in 2013 for aggravated theft, on his release he was ordered to follow treatment for schizophrenia.

Darmanin said the suspect had opened fire on the officers who shot back. He had died shortly after the shootout.

An AFP photo reporter at the scene said he heard around a dozen rounds discharged in two rapid bursts during the standoff, in a residential area.

Special police forces carrying shields and wearing helmets used rubbish bins and bushes for cover as they opened fire.

One witness told AFP he saw a civilian on the ground surrounded by police after the shootout.

Pupils in the area’s primary and middle schools were kept indoors while police tracked the suspect, a city official told AFP.

“We drew the curtains and told the children to lie on the ground. They’ve been there for two hours,” one local teacher told AFP by text message during the manhunt.

The suspect’s former lawyer, Vincent de la Morandiere, told AFP that his client’s psychological state had “deteriorated gradually during his various spells in prison”.

One neighbour described him as “very discreet and polite” while another said “he told me he had psychological problems. He lived alone and didn’t have any visitors. He told me he had a child”.

La Chapelle-sur-Erdre is a town of 20,000 inhabitants just north of Nantes near the Atlantic coast.

The attack came the same day Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti called on French judges to show “firmness” when dealing with people found guilty of attacks on police forces.

Spate of attacks

French police officers have demanded better protection and harsher punishments for attacks against them after a spate of assaults in recent months.

Earlier this month, officer Eric Masson was shot dead while investigating activity at a known drug-dealing site in the southern city of Avignon.

Masson’s death came after the April 23 killing of Stephanie Monferme, a police employee who was stabbed in the town of Rambouillet outside Paris in the latest jihadist attack in France.

There was no immediate indication that the French authorities intended to open a terror probe into Friday’s attack.

But several attacks over the last year have reignited concerns about the spread of radical Islam inside France and immigration.

In September, a Pakistani man wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside the former offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which had printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

On October 16, a young Chechen refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty who had showed some of the caricatures to his pupils.

And on October 29, three people were killed when a recently arrived Tunisian went on a stabbing spree in a church in the Mediterranean city of Nice.

In the most severe recent attack against French police, three officers and one police employee were stabbed to death in October 2019 by a IT specialist colleague who was himself then shot dead. He was later found to have shown an interest in radical Islam.

In France’s deadliest peacetime atrocity, 130 people were killed and 350 were wounded when Islamist suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the Stade de France stadium, bars and restaurants in central Paris and the Bataclan concert hall in November 2015.

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POLITICS

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections. 

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