France began picking itself up Friday from another deadly shooting claimed by the Islamic State group, with President François Hollande convening the government’s security council and his would-be successors in the presidential election campaign treading carefully before voting this weekend.
Investigators found a pump-action shotgun and knives in the car of the gunman who targeted police on the Champs-Elysees, and were working to determine whether he had accomplices. The prime minister said the government has reviewed its already extensive election security measures and says it is “fully mobilized” for Sunday’s vote.
One of the key questions was whether, and how, the attack that killed one police officer and wounded three other people might impact voting intentions. The risk for the main candidates was that misjudging the public mood, making an ill-perceived gesture or comment, could damage their chances.
With polling just two days away, and campaigning banned from Friday at midnight, they would have no time to recover before polls open on Sunday. Candidates on Friday cancelled or rescheduled final campaign events.
“Nothing must hamper this democratic moment, essential for our country,” Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said, appealing for national unity and for people “not to succumb to fear.”
“The whole of Europe is targeted because it represents the values and ideals of peace,” he said.
‘No one knows’ if turnout will be affected
Far-right French populist leader Marine Le Pen called for “a clear head and a firm grip” in the wake of the Champs-Elysees gun attack that put the focus back on one of the main themes of her election campaign for the French presidency: France’s fight against Islamic extremism.
Speaking Friday morning on RFI radio, Le Pen said: “It is time to stop being naive.”
Le Pen, who cancelled a minor campaign stop, but scheduled another, said France should immediately reinstate border checks and expel foreigners who are on the watch lists of intelligence services.
Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron appealed to voters to keep a cool head. Speaking Friday on RTL radio, Macron said: “What our attackers want is death, symbolism, to sow panic [and] to disturb a democratic process, which is the presidential election.”
Asked if the assault would impact voting on Sunday, Macron said: “No one knows.”
He vowed that, if elected, he would within weeks of taking power create a task force to co-ordinate French intelligence efforts against the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for Thursday night’s attack.
Macron tore into Le Pen, accusing her of lying with claims that previous attacks wouldn’t have happened under her watch.
“She won’t be able to protect our citizens,” Macron said of Le Pen.
Conservative contender François Fillon, who has campaigned against “Islamic totalitarianism,” said on France 2 television that he was cancelling his planned campaign stops Friday.
Tens of thousands on security duty on Sunday
More than 50,000 police and gendarmes are mobilized to protect Sunday’s first-round vote in the two-stage election, with an additional 7,000 soldiers also on patrol. Cazeneuve said that the intelligence services are working “in the shadows” and elite intervention police forces are also on alert.
The two top finishers on Sunday will advance to a runoff on May 7.
On the iconic avenue in the heart of Paris, municipal workers in white hygiene suits were out before dawn Friday to wash down the sidewalk where the assault took place — a scene now depressingly familiar after multiple attacks that have killed more than 230 people in France in little over two years. Delivery trucks did their early morning rounds; everything would have seemed normal were it not for the row of TV trucks parked up along the boulevard that is a must-visit for tourists.
The two police officers injured in the attack are out of danger, Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said. National police spokesman Jerome Bonet, also speaking on BFM television, said “there were thousands of people” on the iconic boulevard in Paris when the gunman opened fire and that the rapid response of officers who shot and killed him avoided a possible “carnage.”
The attacker emerged from a car and used an automatic weapon to shoot at officers outside a Marks & Spencer’s department store at the centre of the Champs-Elysees. Police shot and killed the gunman. One officer was killed and two seriously wounded. A female foreign tourist also was wounded, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
Possible Belgian link
The Islamic State group’s claim of responsibility just a few hours after the attack came unusually swiftly for the extremist group, which has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria.
In a statement from its Amaq news agency, the group gave a pseudonym for the shooter, Abu Yusuf al-Beljiki, indicating he was Belgian or had lived in Belgium. Belgian authorities said they had no information about the suspect.
Investigators searched a home early Friday in an eastern suburb of Paris believed linked to the attack. A police document obtained by The Associated Press identifies the address searched in the town of Chelles as the family home of Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old with a criminal record.
Police tape surrounded the quiet, middle-class neighbourhood and worried neighbours expressed surprise at the searches. Archive reports by French newspaper Le Parisien say that Cheurfi was convicted of attacking a police officer in 2001.
Authorities are trying to determine whether “one or more people” might have helped the attacker, Brandet said.
The attacker had been flagged as an extremist, according to two police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.
The attack appeared to fit in a spreading pattern of French extremists targeting security forces and symbols of the state, to discredit, take vengeance and destabilize. It recalled two recent attacks on soldiers providing security at prominent locations around Paris: one at the Louvre museum in February and one at Orly airport last month.