Last week's mass murder of eight city councilors in a Paris suburb left not only a traumatized community and bereft survivors. Coming in the thick of a presidential campaign, alsoit, set France searching for political meaning in a fundamentally senseless act. Both major candidates, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Jacques Chirac, were on the scene before sun-up, condemning the attack in the same words, as "a murderous folly." Yet by the end of the day the two sides were enmeshed in a furious debate over the propriety of drawing any connection between the desperate act of a deranged man and "insecurity," a central theme of the campaign. Then that deranged man, Richard Durn, managed to commit suicide while in police custody, and the focus shifted again. How could government be so dysfunctional as to allow the avowedly homicidal and suicidal Durn to own and use guns and then make his dramatic exit?
Just after 1 a.m. last Wednesday, members of the city council of Nanterre, a working-class suburb of Paris, had concluded a six-hour debate on the municipal budget. Durn, 33, an occasional observer at such public meetings, stood up, calmly drew an automatic Glock pistol and began firing. Pausing several times to reload, he shot Greens, Communists and conservatives alike. He pulled out a second pistol and shot several men trying to restrain him. Once he'd finally been brought down, having injured 19 as well as killing eight, he was found to have a third gun. "Kill me, kill me!" he screamed to his captors. City councilor Samuel Rijik, standing red-eyed and shaken before the Nanterre city hall the morning after, said the horrible drama "seemed to come out of another universe." It quickly emerged that Durn, a native of Nanterre who still lived there with his mother, had a long history of psychological problems. Though he had a master's degree in political science, Durn supported himself with unemployment payments and occasional jobs, including a stint as a monitor in a local school, where he was often ridiculed. Twice before he had tried to kill himself, and in 1998 he had threatened a psychiatrist with a handgun. Legally possessing such a weapon is difficult in France, but Durn qualified because he was an active member of a shooting club in a nearby town. That and a medical certificate allowed Durn to purchase handguns in Paris in 1997 and 1998, but his owner's permit had expired.
Within hours of Durn's transportation to criminal police headquarters on Paris' Ile de la Cité, police had found at his home a 22-page text full of pain and self-denigration, as well as a final letter to his mother. "To feel free and enjoy myself, I have to burst," he wrote. "That's why I have to kill people. For once in my life, I'll feel an orgasm." He was reportedly calm but largely incoherent during police questioning, when he again expressed the wish to die. On Thursday morning, he was brought to a fourth-floor interrogation room. His handcuffs had been removed, and when one of two policemen present asked him to verify a document, he stood up and leapt head-first through a small window. The officer who tried to stop him was left holding his right tennis shoe. Durn's death set loose a cascade of recrimination. Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant called it a "grave dysfunction" and launched an investigation. The Communist mayor of Nanterre, Jacqueline Fraysse, having watched so many of her colleagues struck down, called it "odious, unspeakable and unworthy of a country like ours." The discussion of the police's lack of vigilance overshadowed the more polemical debate launched the evening after the mass shooting. At a political rally in another Paris suburb, Chirac redefined his key theme of "insecurity" as stretching "from ordinary incivility to the drama that we experienced last night." His opponents quickly piled on, accusing Chirac of trying to reap political gain from Durn's mad attack. Jospin said that while he had come to Nanterre to express his "emotion," Chirac's use there of the word indignation gave "another sense to the event." With the polls suggesting an extremely close race, that spat seemed merely to underline the way political style rather than substantive policy differences has come to dominate the campaign.