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Why French serial killer is just the tip of iceberg

LAST week I met Paddy Butler, the author of a recent article on the remarkable life of an unsung Irish heroine Mary Elmes. Mary was a Cork woman who risked her life to smuggle Jews out of wartime France to sanctuary in Spain and ultimate safety in North America.

One day soon we plan to make a documentary film about Mary's exploits with the help of her proud son and daughter living in Perpignan. We also aim to record the testimonies of some of the Jewish children Mary saved from the clutches of the Nazis and their Vichy France collaborators and who went on to lead fruitful and successful lives in Canada and the USA.

It was against this backdrop that I heard the heartbreaking news on Monday morning that a gunman had chased and shot three Jewish children and a Rabbi before escaping on a motorbike in the city of Toulouse. This was close to the region Mary Elmes had operated in, hiding and protecting Jewish children.

Immediately I recalled the images from 70 years ago, that must have moved Mary Elmes to act so unselfishly.

Then, just like this week in Toulouse, Jewish children were pursued and hunted before being sent to their doom by people who hated them.

We now know that Mohamad Merah, the self professed killer of the Jews, was also the ruthless assassin of three French paratroopers, one black West Indian and two French Muslims of North African origin, in separate attacks some days earlier. When the ballistics investigation established that the weapon used by the killer in each attack was the same Colt 45 and that all the victims had been shot in the head at point blank range, all sorts of theories emerged as to his motivation.

The mainstream consensus was that the executioner was probably a madman, possibly a neo-Nazi. There were hints that France was on the trail of its very own Anders Breivik -- the Norwegian mass murderer who soaked Oslo in blood last summer.

"Racism appears to be the common thread," the Irish Times suggested in an editorial typical of most of the coverage of the atrocity.

I didn't buy any of it. For me, that analysis smacked of the worst sort of wishful thinking and self censorship. All the crime scene clues pointed in another direction.

Before the US Navy Seals got to him last year, Osama bin Laden had warned that France would pay "a high price" for deploying its troops on Muslim land. The French Army is currently fighting with NATO forces against a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. In a country with eight million Muslims, it is no surprise that al-Qa'ida will have some followers. Young men like Merah, who regard Muslims in French paratrooper uniforms as traitors to Islam.

In recent years, Jewish schools in Marseille, Paris and Toulouse have been attacked by petrol bombs, burning cars driven into gates and bottles of hydrochloric acid lobbed into playgrounds. Teachers involved in Holocaust Awareness courses in France regularly report disturbing levels of approval for Hitler and his annihilation of Europe's Jews among some Muslim students.

Seventy years ago a brave Cork woman defied French fascists as best she could in their efforts to rid the country of its Jewish citizens. Now another hate-filled ideology has disfigured France. Mohamad Merah is not the first Islamofascist to target his Jewish compatriots and the many Muslims who stand by the French Republic, and sadly he won't be the last.

Gerry Gregg is an Emmy award winning producer/director