The security camera footage is chilling, but faintly absurd.
A man with a gun bursts through the revolving doors of the TV station reception area on the outskirts of Paris. An old man with a walking stick is climbing hesitantly up a flight of stairs to the street.
The gunman steps courteously around the old man, menaces the BFM TV reception staff, ejects two cartridges from his gun on to the carpet and runs away. The old man has managed to climb only one step. The gunman skips courteously around him a second time and escapes into the night.
The next appearance by this “polite” gunman was in the reception area of the left-wing newspaper Libération in central Paris at 10.15am on Monday. This time there were no spoken threats and no courtesy.
Without a word, the same gunman fired two heavy bullets from a double-barrelled hunting rifle into the back and shoulder of a young man entering a lift. Cesar, 23, a freelance photographic assistant, was working for Libération for only the second time. He was gravely wounded while helping to photograph Christmas ornaments for a weekend feature. He was said last night to be still “very seriously ill” but improving. He has been removed from an artificially induced coma.
The mystery gunman was still on the loose. Investigators fear he might strike again, possibly at another media target. Police are said to be closing in on him today.
He is said to be a white man aged 35 to 45, with short, greying hair, and just under six feet tall. Investigators had not yet identified him.
Investigators are studying several security camera sightings of the gunman – at BFM TV on Friday, close to the Libération offices on Monday morning and at a Metro station on Monday afternoon.
In the very clear image taken at the underground station, he had changed his clothes since his brutal assault on Liberation. Then, he was wearing a long khaki jacket, light blue jeans and a black cap. He looked like any of the hunters who pursue wild boar through French forests at this time of year.
In the Metro footage – which police are convinced shows the same man – he looks like any tourist on the streets of Paris. He is wearing a red jacket, a blue jumper and a fawn hat.
Police scientists are also examining traces of his DNA, found in the car that he hijacked after firing random shots at a bank headquarters 90 minutes after his attack on Libération.
He told the man whose car he hijacked that he had recently left prison, He also claimed to have a grenade. Investigators are especially intrigued, and worried, by his strange behaviour in the clear footage taken by a security camera in the lobby of BFM TV at Issy-les-Moulineaux last Friday evening. The man appears unsure of himself, almost apologetic, not sure whether to behave like an assassin or a considerate member of society.
Other footage shows him sitting apparently calmly at a tram stop close to the TV station a few minutes earlier. Was he plucking up his courage? Or summoning his unexplained anger at the French media?
“There is a clear change, an escalation, in his behaviour between the two incidents,” one police source said. “That implies that he could be even more violent next time.”
Analysis of his movements is also puzzling. The driver of the car that he hijacked – a retired Metro worker in his 60s – described him to police as calm and determined. And yet his zig-zag course on Monday has no apparent plan or pattern. He attacked Libération in its converted garage near the Place de la Republique; he moved five miles west to the La Defence office district just outside the city, then back a mile east to the Champs Élysées.
The gunman’s motives also remain a mystery. If he has a grudge against the French media, why attack the HQ of Société Générale, one of the biggest French banks? Why hijack a car to a street near the Champs Élysées and then walk way calmly towards George V Metro station on the busiest underground line in Paris?
There was tangible fear on the streets of Paris on Monday. But not yesterday. The Champs Élysées seemed normal, perhaps a little less crowded that usual. Was this because of the gunman? “No, because of the winter,” said Laurent, tenant of a news kiosk. “People don’t give a stuff about the gunman. Life goes on. You can’t live your life in fear.”
Dominique, proprietor of a bar-restaurant near the Rue Ponthieu where the gunman was last seen, said: “He is obviously deranged. I hope they catch him soon. But I can’t say that people are scared or lying low. We had just as many people for lunch today as we always do. It takes a great deal to disturb lunch in Paris ”
It was as if a boulder had been thrown into a big pond and the ripples had subsided and the pond was back to normal. Fear persists in media offices around the city, which remain under 24-hour armed police guard. Many journalists are convinced the gunman has been influenced by the poisonously angry mood in France: anti-government, anti-establishment and anti-mainstream media.
In a lengthy editorial this morning, Libération editor Nicolas Dumorand pledged to uphold the “values and beliefs” of the newspaper despite this “odious, barbarous act… this profanation”.
Le Monde’s cartoonist Plantu published a front-page drawing entitled “the start of the hunting season”. It showed a typical hunter pointing his rifle at “birds” with human bodies and newspapers for wings.
There is, however, no clear pattern to the gunman’s media targets. Libération, founded 40 years ago by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre amongst others, is a left-wing daily newspaper aimed chiefly at the young.
BFM TV is a relatively new 24-hour news channel, which has a reputation of being less obsequious than other French TV stations and certainly not left-wing.
Police said they had received 400 calls from the public since they issued the security footage on Monday afternoon. Of these 120 are regarded as “serious” and “useful”.
“We have to check them all and that takes time but they are helping us to progress,” a police source told Le Monde.
The source said that investigators had many other clues which must remain confidential.
“We have gathered lots of stuff. You have to be patient in case like this,” the source said.
“But we are confident. We think we should be able to move quite quickly.”