The young man fired so many rounds that the semiautomatic pistol sounded like an assault rifle, said Francois Molins, the chief Paris prosecutor heading the investigation into Merah’s actions. The police fired back as Merah fled toward a sliding window opening onto a balcony, Molins said, putting a bullet through his head and sending him plunging lifeless to the ground. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said two of the commandos were lightly wounded.
In the interval between March 11 and Thursday’s violent end, Merah had made France tremble with his cold-blooded killings, riding up on a motor scooter and methodically opening fire on unsuspecting people in the southwestern French cities of Toulouse and Montauban. According to what he told police negotiators, his motive was to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children in Israeli-occuppied territories, France’s military involvement in Afghanistan and a year-old French law banning full-face Muslim veils.
On March 15, Merah shot two more French soldiers, both of them Muslims, in the head and grievously wounded a fourth, a black Frenchman whose family is from the Antilles. According to a self-filmed video viewed by investigators, he shouted “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” as he fired. Four days later, using the same pistol, he shot dead three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi in front of the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse. Those four victims were dual Israeli-French citizens.
The list of Merah’s victims reads like an advertisement for French multiculturalism, encompassing the estimated 5 million Muslims who live here. But fears arose immediately that the bloody episode could harden resentment of Muslims and other immigrants, already stirred by a bitter presidential campaign ahead of a two-round election set for April 22 and May 6.
In that light, only minutes after police picked up Merah’s slim body, draped in a traditional Arab djellaba covering a bulletproof vest, President Nicolas Sarkozy went on television to draw lessons from the tragic 11-day episode. The first and most important, he said, was that France’s ethnic and religious groups must remain united under the flag.
“Today the French people must overcome their indignation and avoid giving free rein to their anger,” he said.
Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, and Gilles Bernheim, France’s chief rabbi, issued a statement expressing “relief” that the drama was over and calling on French people to “reflect” on its meaning.