French PM Fillon defends Merah 'intelligence failures'

French PM Francois Fillon has said there were no grounds for arresting militant Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah before he shot dead seven people.

Security services have been criticised since it emerged that Merah had been under surveillance for months.

Mr Fillon said there was no single element to suggest a threat.

But presidential candidate Francois Hollande said there were flaws in the surveillance of Merah, who died in a police assault on Thursday in Toulouse.

But speaking on French radio, Mr Fillon said the DCRI, France's domestic intelligence service, "had done their job perfectly".

"They did enough surveillance to see that there was no evidence to suggest he was a dangerous man," he told RTL on Friday.

Image caption Mohamed Merah had claimed to have al-Qaeda training

"We do not have the right in this country to permanently monitor someone when they have committed no crime, without the decision of a judge. We live in a state of law.

Mounting criticism

"Belonging to a Salafist organisation is not an offence in and of itself," Mr Fillon added.

"We cannot mix up religious fundamentalism with terrorism, even if we know there are elements that unite them."

Hundreds of people gathered at a rally in Toulouse on Friday in a show of unity, and to pay homage to the victims of the shootings.

Merah, 23, carried out three separate attacks, killing three soldiers and four people at a Jewish school.

It was known he had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and had been placed on the US no-fly list banning him from boarding any aircraft to America.

Mr Hollande said there had been a "flaws" in the surveillance of Merah, and after the killings there were "questions which must be asked".

"Our laws have been strengthened against this threat, and it can be said that this arsenal is flawed," the Socialist candidate added.

But he said he would wait for the results of the official inquiry into the affair before making any further criticisms.

Official campaigning in next month's presidential election is resuming after being put on hold following the shooting at the Jewish school on Monday.

Opinion polls this week suggest little change in the fortunes of the main candidates, with Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande roughly equal in first-round voting intentions, while Mr Hollande is still far ahead in the second.

One surprise, however, is the indication that radical left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon has caught up on, or even overtaken, the far right's Marine Le Pen.

Three polls taken since Monday, two of which were completed on Thursday, show Mr Melenchon on 14, 11 and 13% compared to 13, 17 and 13.5% for Ms Le Pen.

The same polls show support of 28, 28 and 30% for Mr Sarkozy, and 29.5, 27.5 and 28% for Mr Hollande.

Crackdown pledge

Merah, of Algerian descent, was shot by a police sniper after he opened fire on police commandos storming his flat after a 32-hour siege on Thursday morning.

The marksman killed Merah as he tried to jump out of the bathroom window, prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters.

The prosecutor also confirmed Merah had filmed all three attacks.

Merah's brother Abdelkader was arrested on Wednesday. Police sources have told French media that he did not know about his brother's criminal activity.

Earlier, President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a televised address that everything had been done to try to bring Merah to justice, but it was decided that no more lives could be put at risk.

He also vowed a new crackdown on those who visited "hate or terrorism" web sites or travelled abroad to be indoctrinated in terrorism.