President Emmanuel Macron led national tributes on Wednesday to the gendarme who switched places with a woman hostage during an attack on a supermarket in southern France last week and was killed by the Islamist terrorist.
Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame’s heroism has helped reassure a nation left shaken and in mourning after Moroccan-born Radouane Lakdim’s killing spree, an attack that rekindled a debate over how France deals with suspected radical Islamist terrorists.
Tributes for Beltrame began with a minute’s silence in gendarme barracks across France, before the gendarme’s Tricolor-draped coffin was driven through Paris in heavy rain to Les Invalides, a former military hospital.
Crowds lined the streets and gendarmes stood to attention as the cortege passed.
In the cobbled courtyard of Les Invalides, Macron solemnly addressed the nation.
“To accept to die so the innocent can live: That is the essence of what it means to be a soldier,” he said. “Others, even many who are brave, would have wavered or hesitated.”
Lakdim’s rampage began when he shot dead the occupant of a car he stole and fired on a group of police joggers, wounding one. He then headed to a supermarket in Trebes, east of the popular medieval tourist city of Carcassonne, where he killed an employee and a customer.
Beltrame, 44, led the team of gendarmes who arrived first on the scene. He persuaded Lakdim to release a woman he was holding as a human shield, laying down his weapon and putting his cell phone on a table with the line surreptitiously left open.
When three shots later rang out, elite police stormed the building and shot dead Lakdim. Beltrame was found with bullet wounds to an arm and foot and a grave knife wound to the neck. He died the following morning in the hospital.
Colleagues of Beltrame have paid tribute to the gendarme’s sense of duty, calmness under pressure and a generosity which inspired those serving beside him.
“In serving the country he gave his life,” General Denis Favier, former senior official in the National Gendarmerie, told BFM news agency. “He showed he was a man of values, a man of honor who went beyond the call of duty to fulfill his mission.”
The attack has once again exposed secular France’s struggle to integrate Europe’s largest Muslim community and deal with the threat posed by homegrown militants and foreign jihadists.
Lakdim had been on a government watch list – known as Fiche S – since 2014 because of suspected links to local Salafist networks. But he had recently received a summons from the DGSI spy agency and was to be informed he was no longer viewed as a security risk, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said.
Friday’s attack was the first since Macron, in power since May, lifted a two-year state of emergency imposed after Islamist terrorists killed 130 people in coordinated attacks on Paris in November 2015.
Political opponents have pressed Macron to deal more firmly with radical preachers and Salafist mosques.
Macron has pledged to redefine relations between Islam and the state to foster a more homegrown form of Islam that would better fit with France’s firm separation of church and state.
Far-right party leader Marine Le Pen and opposition leader Laurent Wauquiez have both called for foreigners on the Fiche S list to be expelled and the most dangerous French nationals on the watch list to be imprisoned.
“We must fight our battle within the bounds of the law,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe Philippe told lawmakers on Friday.