The 84-year-old is accused of trying to set fire to a mosque and shooting two men who came to investigate. Authorities say he was seeking revenge based on a conspiracy theory about the burning of Notre Dame cathedral.
Authorities in the southwestern French town of Bayonne charged an 84-year-man with attempted murder, arson and related gun charges on Wednesday. The charges stem from a Monday incident in which a man attempted to set a local mosque on fire, then shot two men — aged 74 and 78 — who came to investigate the scene. Both victims are currently in a stable condition in a Bayonne hospital.
The suspect, who also stood as a regional candidate for the far-right National Front party in 2015 —which has since been renamed National Rally — is known to locals for his "verbal excesses." The man admitted to the crime, saying it was in retribution for the blaze that damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in April, investigators said. Though authorities have said all along that the fire was an accident, some, including the suspect in Bayonne, believe a conspiracy theory pointing the finger at Muslims.
'The Republic will never tolerate hatred'
French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday took to Twitter to denounce what he called a "heinous crime." Macron said: "The Republic will never tolerate hatred. Everything will be done to punish the perpetrators and protect our Muslim compatriots. I commit myself to it." Earlier in the day, Macron had called on Muslims to be more proactive in the fight against what he called Islamic "separatism."
Possible life sentence
If convicted, the 84-year-old suspect, who told police that he had not intended to kill anyone, may spend the rest of his life behind bars. First, however, he will continue to undergo psychological examinations to determine whether he understands his actions.
Bayonne City Prosecutor Marc Mariee said authorities in Paris will not be taking over the investigation, indicating that it is not currently being considered a terrorist attack. Speaking of the psychological exam, Mariee said initial reports found the man suffers, "a partial impairment of his judgment and/or control of his actions." The impairment would not keep him from standing trial, but could lead to a more lenient sentence.
The incident comes at a time when France continues to struggle with social cohesion and mistrust of Muslim citizens. In the wake of an early October attack in which a radicalized police employee stabbed four of his colleagues to death in Paris, calls for Macron to crack down on Islamist radicalism in the country have grown louder.
On Tuesday, the opposition-controlled French Senate approved a bill proposed by National Rally members calling for a ban on parents wearing visible religious symbols when accompanying children on field trips. The bill was prompted by a National Rally politician who recently demanded a woman accompanying her son and other children on such a trip remove her headscarf, calling it an "Islamist provocation."
The bill will now move to the National Assembly, where it is unlikely to pass due to the fact that Macron's party holds a majority.
In response to the bill, the French Council of Muslims warned that an "aggressive, even criminal, Islamophobic hysteria," has taken root in the country.
Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.
js/se (AFP, dpa)