Paris (AFP) – In the panic that followed the rattle of gunfire on Paris’s famed Champs Elysees on Thursday, tourists and locals dashed for their lives, took refuge where they could and hoped the bullets wouldn’t find them.
“People were running, bumping into each other and crashing into tables”, said a 39-year-old woman who had been dining in a restaurant off the boulevard bustling with visitors.
In the end, the attacker who opened fire with an automatic weapon killed one police officer and wounded two others, one of them seriously. A foreign tourist was hit in her knee by shrapnel.
The gunman was shot dead in return fire while trying to flee on foot, police sources told AFP.
Nobody understood what was happening, “especially the foreign tourists,” said the woman who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The waiters told us to get out the back of the restaurant, but there was no exit so we had to hide in a back courtyard,” she said, as the lights of dozens of emergency vehicles flashed.
The two-kilometre (1.2-mile) road that links the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde is lined with high-priced real estate, luxury shops and theatres.
– ‘Want to go home’ –
In the moments after the attack, which was claimed by Islamic State jihadists and came just three days before France’s presidential election first round, people hid where they could.
Some took cover in restaurants or shops, others ran into cinemas to get off the strip that is nicknamed “the most beautiful avenue in the world.”
“I heard shots and I went to see what it was. I saw two bodies on the ground and people screaming, running everywhere,” said Mehdi, a communications consultant. “I was afraid. I left. I didn’t even pay the bill!”
The attack’s impact on the outcome of one of the most unpredictable election contests in decades is unclear, but far-right leader Marine Le Pen and scandal-hit conservative Francois Fillon immediately cancelled their campaign events on Friday.
The burst of violence and rush of police action left visitors bewildered, and saddened by the new reality of a steady threat of terror attacks in the French capital.
Jihadist-inspired assaults have killed more than 230 people in France since 2015, with many of the victims being people who had gone out for the evening.
Isabel, a 34-year-old Australian tourist, was unable to reach her lodging because of the police lines.
“I just want to go home,” she said.