Paris (AFP) – The jihadist killing of a policeman on the Champs Elysees in Paris cast a pall over the last day of campaigning in France’s presidential election Friday, making the terror threat the dominant issue two days before voting.
Thursday’s shooting, which the Islamic State (IS) group claimed as the work of one of its “fighters”, is the latest in a string of attacks that have claimed 239 lives around France since 2015, nearly all by local men.
The authorities had feared further bloodshed during the presidential race — a tight four-way contest between far-right leader Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron, conservative Francois Fillon and Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.
A note praising IS was found near the body of 39-year-old attacker Karim Cheurfi, who shot dead an officer and wounded two others before being killed in a firefight that sent tourists on the world-famous boulevard rushing for cover.
The scenes of violence propelled security back to the fore in the presidential campaign after nine months of relative calm. Le Pen, Fillon and Macron cancelled their final rallies.
Le Pen, who had hardened her tone on security and Islam in recent days, moved quickly to present herself as the best defender against Islamist radicals.
The 48-year-old National Front leader called for France to “immediately” take back control of its borders from the European Union and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist.
“This war against us is ceaseless and merciless,” she said, accusing the Socialist government of a “cowardly” response to the threat.
Fillon and Macron also hastily convened televised briefings, where they vowed to protect the French.
“Some haven’t taken the full measure of the evil,” 63-year-old Fillon said, promising an “iron-fisted” approach.
Macron, a 39-year-old moderate whom the other candidates have portrayed as too inexperienced for the top job, appealed to voters “not to give into fear.”
Veteran leftwinger Melenchon was the only one of the four to stick to his schedule.
– IS note –
Cheurfi drew up alongside a police van and fired at around 9:00 pm (1900 GMT) on Thursday, sending shoppers and strollers on the ritzy Champs Elysees fleeing for their lives.
He was killed while trying to flee on foot. A German tourist was slightly wounded in the exchange of fire.
A statement by IS’s propaganda agency Amaq issued shortly after the attack identified him as “Abu Yussef the Belgian”.
The claim raised initial concerns that a possible second attacker could be on the loose.
On Friday, French authorities said a man sought in Belgium, who was suspected of having planned to travel to France on Thursday, had handed himself into police in the Belgian city of Antwerp.
French interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said it was “too early to say” if the man was linked to Thursday’s shooting.
Cheurfi was known to anti-terror investigators, sources told AFP. He had been arrested in February on suspicion of plotting to kill police officers but released a day later because of a lack of evidence.
He had been convicted in 2005 of three counts of attempted murder, two involving police officers, sources said. Three people known to him were being questioned by police.
– ‘Exploiting’ attack –
The shooting came days after two men were arrested in Marseille on suspicion of planning an imminent attack and follows a series of deadly strikes around Europe in the last month, targeting Stockholm, London and the underground train system in Saint Petersburg.
Until now, surveys showed voters more concerned about unemployment and the economy than terrorism or security, though analysts warned this could change in the event of violence.
Macron and Le Pen had long led the campaign but Melenchon and Fillon have closed in on them, with Fillon regaining some support lost to an expenses scandal.
Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve accused Le Pen of attempting to use the police killing for political gain, saying she was “seeking, as she does after every tragedy, to take advantage of it”.
US President Donald Trump tweeted that the attack “will have a big effect” on the election.
– Chaotic scenes –
Shop owners and restaurant managers shepherded their customers to backrooms and basements when the shooting began on the Champs Elysees.
France has been under a state of emergency for nearly a year and a half, with more than 230 people killed in jihadist attacks since the start of 2015.
The offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine were hit in January 2015, IS gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people in Paris the following November, and a Tunisian man rammed a truck through crowds in Nice last July, killing 86 people.