French activist killed after brutal attack by skinheads

A group of skinheads beat a French far-left activist to death in the heart of Paris' shopping district, officials said Thursday, in an attack that raised fears of increased far-right violence.

Political tensions are high in France after months of protests against legalizing gay marriage that sometimes ended with troublemakers from the extreme right clashing with police.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls said a fight broke out Wednesday evening between two groups of young people in a pedestrian street just steps away from the famous Printemps department store. At one point, the 19-year-old leftist activist was beaten by several skinheads, according to Valls, a widely respected, center-leaning member of President Francois Hollande's Socialist government.

The activist, Clement Meric, was initially hospitalized in grave condition, then died Thursday, said Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor's office.

Four suspects, aged 20 to 37 and believed to have links to extreme right movements, were arrested, Thibault-Lecuivre said.

It was unclear how the fight developed and how many people were involved in the attack on a crowded street with cafes and chain stores.

Politicians from left and right lashed out at the violence, including the president. Valls focused his anger at the skinheads.

"There is no place for small neo-Nazi groups whose enemy is the nation," he said. "A group of the extreme right is at the heart of this ... There is a discourse of hate and a climate that favors this discourse. We need to pay attention to this, because they threaten our values."

The leader of the far right, anti-immigration National Front party, Marine Le Pen, tried to distance herself and her party from the violence, saying they shouldn't be lumped together.

Meric was a student at Sciences Po, one of France's most prestigious universities, according to the school.

The Party of the Left said Meric, one of its activists, had earlier been declared brain dead. The party, one of several small political movements on France's vocal and active far left, held demonstrations in Paris on Wednesday against violence by groups on the extreme right.