An 84-year-old man who has been accused of setting fire to the main entrance of a mosque in the town of Bayonne and is alleged to have shot two people, wanted to “avenge the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral” which he claimed was done by Muslims, said prosecutor Marc Mariee at a press conference on Tuesday.
In the hours following the start of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire of April 15, several websites spread rumors that some Muslims were claiming responsibility for the fire, in retaliation for the Christchurch mosque shootings that killed 51 in New Zealand.
Claude Sinké, who had received military training in his youth, had been a candidate for local elections in 2015 under the banner of Marine Le Pen’s party, the National Front (now known as “National Rally”). The party has since condemned the attack in a statement saying that Sinké had been removed from the party for “speech judged contrary to the spirit and the political line of the National Rally” and “had since not participated in any action of the movement.”
The attack occurred amid French Senate debates over proposed and controversial legislation forbidding women from wearing hijabs when accompanying their children on school field trips.
The bill was submitted days after a mother on a school trip to a local assembly was asked by a council member from Le Pen’s party to remove her hijab.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith denounced the proposed ban in a statement on Tuesday. The organization, which includes representatives of Muslim federations across France, linked the Bayonne mosque attack and “outrageous remarks” from politicians and media personalities who “trivialize the hatred of Muslims.”
Sinké reportedly poured gasoline on the mosque’s main door and set it on fire on Monday. The shooting victims include a 78-year-old man and a 74-year-old man who was sitting in a car. Sinké reportedly poured gasoline on the car and lit it on fire with the victim still inside.
At 3:30 p.m., French police arrested Sinké at his home in Saint-Martin-de-Seignanx, 15 kilometers north of Bayonne.
Police discovered grenades, an automatic pistol, several cartridges and a shotgun in Sinké’s home.
“There are questions regarding his mental health and a psych evaluation of the suspect is underway,” said Mariee at the press conference.
The two victims are in stable condition, according to authorities. The local Muslim community is using a space loaned by the mayor of Bayonne, according to local reports.