Cameron praises Sarkozy leadership despite criticism of anti-immigrant rhetoric

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron praised Nicolas Sarkozy's "resolute leadership" today, despite criticism in France that his recent anti-immigrant rhetoric may have contributed to a spate of killings.

One of the largest manhunts in recent French history began yesterday after a lone gunman killed a teacher and three pupils at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Police have connected the killings with two shootings last week in which three soldiers of north African descent died.

Most commentators believe the killings are an attack on 'diverse France' and there has been considerable criticism of the heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric employed by President Sarkozy recently, as he tries to take support from far-right candidate Marine Le Pen ahead of the upcoming elections.

But in a letter to the president, the British prime minister specifically praised his leadership.

"People across Britain share the shock and grief that is being felt in France, and my thoughts are with the victims, their friends and their families," he wrote.

"I know that France will draw strength and comfort from your resolute leadership at this difficult time.

"You can count on my every support in confronting these senseless acts of brutality and cowardice."

The comment is especially pointed given Mr Cameron has barely tried to conceal his preference for President Sarkozy over his Socialist rival François Hollande, whose radical leftist programme has startled Downing Street.

In a recent press conference Mr Cameron even said he would have gone on the campaign trail with President Sarkozy, except that it would be unlikely to do the incumbent any good. He then refused to meet Mr Hollande during a visit to London.

The candidates halted campaigning yesterday to stand united in the wake of the shooting, but commentators were already drawing attention to President Sarkozy's recent comments on immigration, arguing that he helped create a climate of hostility to people of different races.

The president recently said the spread of halal and kosher food was of prime national concern and demanded clear labelling.

His interior minister, who has previously been criticised for arguing some cultures are superior to others, then claimed halal food could forced on to school menus.

The focus on halal and kosher meat followed a statement from Ms Le Pen in which she wrongly claimed all meat in Paris was halal.

Last week, the president claimed simply that there were "too many foreigners" in France.

The rhetoric, which President Sarkozy also employed when he was first running four years ago, is partly a result of France's two-part electoral system, which forces candidates to appeal to voters on the extremes of their political wing in the first round before making a pitch for the centre in the second round run-off.

The president put south-west France on the highest terrorism alert possible yesterday – the first time the 'scarlet alert' been used.

The measures allow authorities to implement sweeping security measures, including military patrols, close schools and suspend public transport.

Guards have been posted at all faith schools as well as Jewish and Muslim religious buildings.

Meanwhile, thousands marched silently in Paris in memory of the victims of the shooting and all French schools held a minute's silence this morning.