French gunman driven to despair by unemployment: Julian Nundy looks at the life of the man who took children hostage in Paris

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THE HOODED gunman shot dead after holding nursery school children hostage for 46 hours in a booby-trapped classroom was a former businessman driven to despair by unemployment. He was trained to use guns and explosives when in the French army.

The man, Eric Schmitt, took 21 pupils hostage in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, on Thursday last week, demanding 100m francs (pounds 12m). The last six, all girls aged 3 and 4, were rescued on Saturday when commandos moved in as Schmitt, 42, slept.

Details emerging show he had convictions for driving with more than the legal limit of alcohol in his blood and for speeding.

Born in Algeria to a family of French settlers, or pieds noirs, Schmitt was 11 when his family was among the million or so settlers who left for a new life in France as Algeria gained independence. His parents settled near Beziers in southern France.

In 1967 Schmitt joined the army, leaving seven years later with the rank of sergeant.

In 1981 he set up a small electronics business in the Paris suburbs. Six years later, after a childless marriage which ended in divorce, he sold his flat and moved near his parents. He started a computer maintenance company which went bankrupt in 1991. Schmitt was laid off last spring from a job at Thomson, the state-owned electronics company. His girlfriend left him for another man.

A week before he took his hostages, Schmitt was in his parents' village fishing, neighbours said. He was reported to have run up debts and said, according to Captain Evelyne Lambert, a 25-year-old paediatrician, that he had 'nothing to lose'. Marie Schmitt, his mother, suffered a heart attack after her son's death.

During the siege he had threatened to bleed the infants to death. 'We feared that he would kill himself in the classroom,' the Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, told French television. 'He was at the same time very intelligent and crazy . . . paranoid.'

Capt Lambert said Schmitt disliked media references to him as a 'madman'. He had forced her to taste his food and drink, apparently fearing sedatives or poison - a move police had rejected as too risky.

The children, woken by Capt Lambert, who knew the rescue attempt was to be made, were dressed and playing 'the tortoise' - a game in which they crawled under mattresses. That would have given them some protection if Schmitt had detonated the 21 sticks of dynamite in the room.