A POISONER with a psychopathic hatred for animals is at work in the country constituency of Jacques Chirac, the French president. So far he has claimed the lives of more than 100 dogs, 12 cats, a sheep and numerous wild animals and birds.
The poisoner operates by leaving pieces of sausage meat laced with Carbofuran, a powerful agricultural insecticide, outside homes, offices and even at school gates.
Residents in several villages in the Correze, in the Massif Central, where the president has a chateau, claim that there have been 10 "waves" of the poisonings in the past five years, beginning in 1998.
More than 200 animals are believed to have been poisoned, at least half of them fatally.
"Some of the animals reported missing have never been found. No doubt they crawled away to die in agony in some wood or ditch," said a spokesman for the French Society for the Protection of Animals (SPA).
"And we have no idea how many wild animals have been poisoned. It is just grotesque. If your dog is run over by a car it's bad enough, but to lose a pet in such a violent way is terrible."
In 2001 the police issued a profile of the poisoner describing him as someone who was probably "well-known in the area, sure of himself and filled with a sense of his own impunity".
Detectives arrested a local businessman who matched the profile shortly afterwards. He was mis en examen, the first step towards being charged, for "cruelty to domestic animals" after officers allegedly found pieces of meat similar to those used by the poisoner in his car.
The accused man, known only as "Monsieur B", has repeatedly protested his innocence, but animal campaigners claim that another wave of poisonings occurred after he was released on £50,000 bail in February 2001.
They have accused the police - who have amassed a 3,000-page file on the case - and the judiciary of dragging their heels over the inquiry and being slow to bring the suspect to justice.
Some, including the SPA spokesman, have even accused the authorities of a cover-up. "We believe that this man has benefited from some kind of support," she said. "If not, he would have already been judged."
Officials insist that "no one has been protected". Indeed, the police have been under intense pressure to conclude their inquiries since several local mayors raised the issue of the poisonings with President Chirac's wife Bernadette, who is a regional councillor in the Correze.
understand that she was very upset about the attacks and said
that she had not known anything about them. Certainly her
intervention has put the heat on the investigation,"
said the SPA spokesman.
Sylvie Pagegie, whose pedigree hunting dog, a German shorthaired pointer called Diane de la Godivelle, died after eating the poison, said: "People are very upset and very angry. There's a sense that we haven't been told everything. We don't even know when he [Monsieur B] is going to be brought to court.
"There's also a feeling that the police didn't take this seriously from the beginning because he is quite an influential person with friends in high places locally. Why else would he still not be judged in court after so long?"
Monsieur B, described by investigators as an "extremely intelligent" man, denies any involvement in the animal deaths, claiming that he was in Belgium when the last attack took place in December.
In the town of Correze, the region's capital, Mrs Pagegie has set up a 40-strong association of owners who have lost their pets and vigilante patrols have been organised in an attempt to prevent future poisonings.
The patrols are not just to protect pets, Mrs Pagegie said. "A lot of mothers are terrified that their children might touch one of the lumps of meat, and we are all afraid it is going to end in someone's death."
The feelings in Correze are running so high that some animal owners admit that they are tempted to take the law into their own hands. "We know who Monsieur B is," said one. "If he were to show his face around here there wouldn't be any need for a court case."