A disgruntled French human rights activist murdered eight local councillors, and wounded 30 others, when he opened fire on a council meeting in the western suburbs of Paris yesterday.
Richard Durn, 33, was wrestled to the ground by other councillors after firing nearly 50 shots at the end of a late-night council meeting in Nanterre, just west of the French capital. He was reported to have told police later that he had to kill somebody because he wanted "to die and to finish with life".
The council meeting had ended after six hours of routine affairs – sports subsidies, street repairs, housing – the dull staple fare of local government, in France or anywhere else.
At about 1.15am yesterday, Durn was the last person in the public gallery. Everyone knew his face. He seldom spoke but regularly attended council meetings at Nanterre town hall, a four-storey, 1980s building in the shape of a pyramid.
As the councillors began leave the chamber, Durn stood up and began to shoot them from behind with a Glock 9mm automatic pistol. He used three, 15-round magazines, striding around the chamber, shooting councillors at point-blank range, before other politicians wrestled him to the ground.
Before he was finally subdued, he produced a second Glock pistol and fired again, screaming: "Kill me, kill me". A third gun was found on him.
Eight Nanterre councillors, from both sides of the political divide, lay dead in their seats or sprawled across benches. Another 30 people, mostly councillors, were shot. Fourteen of then were said last night to be seriously or critically injured.
Some witnesses saidDurn selected his targets. They said he seemed to know precisely which councillors he wanted to kill, starting with the Greens and Communists. Others insisted he fired at random.
Durn is an unemployed ecological activist and gun-lover, who lived with his mother and had been on humanitarian missions to Bosnia. He was treasurer of the local branch of the League of Human Rights in Nanterre, a concrete "new town" near the skyscrapers of La Défense. Three of his wounded victims, Communist councillors, were also members of the league.
Did he bear some grudge? Several witnesses said there was no real sign that Durn was shooting at individuals. He simply started killing and wounding those nearest to the public gallery and then strode, silently, towards the podium, shooting left and right as he went.
"He wanted to kill us all," said Jacqueline Fraysse, the Communist mayor of Nanterre, who is also a prominent MP and heart specialist. She narrowly escaped death herself.
An emergency worker said on French television: "It was like the apocalypse. There were bodies, blood, wounded people everywhere."
Police sources said last night that Durn had told them, in custody, that he "had to kill somebody" because he "wanted to die and to finish with life".
Nanterre is a neat, soulless, working-class enclave. Communist-run, it is surrounded by the wealthy suburbs of Versailles, St Germain and Neuilly. At first glance, it might be America (ignoring the boulevards named after heroes of the left, such as Salvador Allende, Pablo Picasso and Emile Zola). Though not especially violent, the tangle of tower blocks and malls, car showrooms, fast-food restaurants, motorways and dual carriageways could be New Jersey-sur-Seine.
There were voices yesterday – political mostly – which said the massacre proved France was sliding into the anarchy of inner-city America (or maybe the French-imagined America).
Never mind the statistics, which show that the French murder rate has been falling steadily (as has the American murder rate). Never mind that you have to go back seven years to find a mass killing in France on this scale. Never mind the fact that, despite an undoubted surge in the last few years, most violent crime in France remains far below the levels in Britain or Germany.
This is a political season in France; the first round of the presidential election is in three weeks. Richard Durn's massacre immediately became a political event and not just because he killed politicians – young, unknown and mostly unpaid politicians – four Communists, a Green and three from the centre-right.
Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Prime Minister and front-runner in the presidential polls, was already under pressure from the right over his poor record on crime. He described the massacre yesterday as an "act of total craziness, an act of murderous folly", which should not be confused with concerns about more everyday crimes.
Other Socialist leaders suggested there would be a backlash against anyone who tried to make political capital from such a tragedy.
President Jacques Chirac spoke of an "unimaginable disaster" and made no direct political connections. But he asked how Durn could come to own "very sophisticated" weapons of this kind. The Glock is a lightweight, hi-tech, automatic pistol used by bodyguards and assassins.
However, Durn belonged to a gun club, and had bought and licensed the weapons legally. French gun laws, partly due to pressure from the hunting lobby, are tougher than those in the US but weaker than many other countries in Europe, including Britain.
More extreme right-wing voices, such as Bruno Mégret of the National Movement, insisted that Durn's actions were part of a "collapse of traditional values, a descent into barbarism". Corinne Lepage, a right-wing environmentalist close to Mr Chirac, said that, however demented the killer may have been, "the real issue here is public insecurity".
The eight dead councillors were named as Louiza Benakli, 40, a Communist lawyer; Christian Bouthier, 46, a Communistteacher; Jacotte Duplenne, 48, also a Communist teacher; Monique Leroy-Sauter, 43, a centre-right accountant; Olivier Mazzotti, 38, a centre-right teacher; Valérie Méot, 40, a Communist teacher; Michel Raoult, 58, a centre-right businessman; and Pascal Sternberg, 30, a Green politician.
Their bodies lay where they had fallen for most of yesterday, as police tried to reconstruct the sequence of events.
Another Communist councillor, Christian Brunet, who escaped unharmed, gave the fullest account.
"[Durn] just stood up and opened his jacket," Mr Brunet said. "He started to shoot, to right and left. He shot the whole row of councillors where I was ... I jumped into the aisle to save my skin. He was looking straight at me but he didn't hit me. He didn't say a word. He must have used three or four magazines. He had a second pistol in his belt. It was like being in a horror film. He shot the councillors in the front row, coldly, one by one. Then he went around the room, shooting, and started to get up onto the podium, where the mayor and her deputies were. That's when he was overwhelmed."
"A few councillors jumped him as he was reloading. He managed to fire at them but they pulled him down. Then he screamed, 'kill me, kill me'."
Police said that Durn was "utterly exhausted" and had said little since being arrested. On first impressions, they say, the massacre seemed to be "motiveless dementia". They said Durn might have been inspired by the killing last September of 15 councillors of Zug in Switzerland by a 57-year-old man, protesting against local government bureaucracy.
Questions were inevitably being asked about the security at Nanterre town hall. There was no procedure for screening or searching the public.
In the meantime,whatever the evidence, "motiveless dementia", will not easily be accepted in France as the last word on the shooting of 38 councillors in their own council chamber.