PARIS - Seizing on the Toulouse killings, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen toned up her anti-Islam rhetoric on Thursday, March 22, accusing the government of surrendering poor suburbs to Islamic radicals.
"The government is scared," Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front Party, told France Info radio.
"I've been saying this for 10 years. Entire districts are in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and I say it again today the danger is underestimated.
Le Pen, third in opinion polls, said that there were thousands of Islamic militants in France.
"The reality dawning on the French people is that social and civil peace has been bought in a number of districts and that price is the development of (fundamentalist) networks," she said.
At least seven people, including three Muslim soldiers and three Jewish children, were killed by a gunman in the southern city of Toulouse this month.
The gunman, a French Muslim of Algerian origin, was killed Thursday as he scrambled out of a ground-floor window during a gun battle with French police.
Le Pen accused France's intelligence services of failing to track the killer despite the fact he had been arrested repeatedly and boasted of working for Al-Qaeda.
"They should have been monitoring this green fascism that's developing in our country."
Islam and immigration have been a main theme in the electoral rallies of Elysee hopefuls.
Focusing on inciting fear on the role of Islam in France, home to up to six million Muslims, Le Pen adopts an anti-immigrant approach to gain public support.
In 2010, Le Pen compared Muslim prayers on the streets to Nazi occupation.
Along with its anti-immigrant approach, her party also focuses on problems facing French people, including scarce jobs and housing problems.
Most mainstream politicians on the left and right of the political spectrum in France say that Le Pen is dangerously stigmatizing large swathes of society.
But most French candidates sought to rise above populist rhetoric after the Toulouse killings.
"Not for a quarter of a second can we accept that ill be said of the country's second religion, all because of a madman," Jean-Luc Melenchon, hardline left presidential candidate and a fierce critic of Le Pen, told a rally, Reuters reported.
French Muslim leaders have distanced the sizable minority from the Toulouse killings, saying the attacks run counter to Islamic teachings.
Analysts expect the Toulouse killings would thrust the issue of security to the top national agenda, giving a boost to President Nicolas Sarkozy before the April-May election.
"In terrible moments of violence like this, the government is seen as legitimate in its security powers," Brice Teinturier of the Ipsos polling institute told France Inter radio.
"It gives the head of state, even if he's a candidate, more visibility because he embodies the French people, and gives this issue (security) more importance."
Sarkozy was a tough interior minister for most of the five years before he was elected president in 2007 and was best known for earthy promises to clean away "yobs" with a power-hose.
Riots erupted across many of France's powder-keg suburbs in 2005 at a time when Nicolas Sarkozy was interior minister.
But Sarkozy's record in reducing violent crime is a matter of dispute, with statistics inconclusive, but his outspoken determination reassures many voters who see the left as soft on crime.
A CSA poll conducted on Monday and Tuesday showed Sarkozy would win 30 percent in the first round of the election against 28 percent for socialist candidate Francois Hollande, whereas the two rivals had been neck-and-neck a week ago.
On Thursday, Sarkozy said France would make it a crime to consult websites that advocate terrorism or hate crimes and would toughen a crackdown on people who went abroad for ideological indoctrination.
Critics accuse Sarkozy and Le Pen of fueling the climate of prejudice in France.
Centrist Francois Bayrou appeared to take aim at Sarkozy, without naming him, telling a rally in Grenoble that the Toulouse killings were "rooted in the state of society.
"There is a degree of violence and stigmatization in French society which is growing, and that is unacceptable," he said.
He appeared to be referring to a populist speech Sarkozy made at a mass rally this month in which he said there were too many foreigners in France and threatened to pull out of a European open-border pact unless controls were tightened.
Sarkozy, who pushed through a law banning the wearing of the Muslim face-veil (niqab) in public, has vied with Le Pen to make a campaign issue of Islamically slaughtered halal meat.After Le Pen alleged that people in the Paris area were being unwittingly fed halal meat because the region's main slaughterhouses all practiced Islamic ritual slaughter, Sarkozy consumers should be alerted by special labels.