Author: NICHOLAS VINOCUR
PARIS — Two days before France votes in the first round of a presidential election, the fatal shooting of a police officer jolted the campaign’s focus back onto security as candidates scrapped scheduled events and vowed to crack down harder on terror.
France has been under a state of emergency for more than a year due to a string of terrorist attacks. And the killing on Paris’ Champs Élysées, quickly claimed by the Islamic State terror group, put bloodshed and the battle against Islamic terrorism squarely back into the front of voters’ minds, days after police thwarted plans for a major attack.
Leading candidates scrambled to shake up their plans, with centrist Emmanuel Macron, conservative former Prime Minister François Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen all calling off campaign events. Several candidates held special press conferences urging stronger anti-terrorism measures that ranged from better intelligence to a total shutdown of French borders.
The attack overshadowed a race that is too close to call, with Macron apparently holding a narrow lead over Le Pen. A daily Ifop poll published Thursday showed Macron winning 24 percent of the votes on Sunday versus 22.5 percent for Le Pen, with 19.5 percent going to Fillon and 18.5 to far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Socialist Benoît Hamon was seen winning 7 percent of votes. The top two candidates will qualify for a decisive second round on May 7.
Speaking at a presidential-looking lectern flanked by French and EU flags, Macron vowed to be “inflexible” in his response to terrorism but also criticized rivals for giving in to “excesses.”
“In these circumstances, the first role of the president of the republic, as chief of the armed forces, is to protect the French people,” he said. “This means not giving in to excesses, as I have seen here and there … The fight must be conducted beyond our borders to destroy our enemies in Iraq and Syria, which is where the commanders of those who kill in France are located.”
Le Pen, whose support appears to be slipping in the final dash, struck a more radical note, calling for an immediate shutdown of national borders and the expulsion any foreigners suspected of links to terrorist groups. Breaking with a tradition of national solidarity during terrorism, she also blasted President François Hollande’s Socialist government.
“To this ephemeral government worn out by its inertia, I demand the immediate restoration of our national borders,” the National Front party chief said at her campaign headquarters in Paris. “The response must be global, total, that of an entire country.”
In his own set-piece event, Fillon called for France to enforce border controls, maintain its state of emergency and hire 10,000 additional security officers. “We must show our adversaries that France is unified and will not be afraid,” said the candidate, whom police had identified as the target of a planned attack, thwarted earlier this week.
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Off all the candidates, Le Pen has put the most focus on terrorism, making it the central theme of a platform that urges drastic cuts to immigration, withdrawal from the European Union and radical new anti-terrorism measures. Yet the far-right leader suffers from a lack of executive experience, with polls showing that voters rate her less highly than rivals on metrics such as “competence” and “presidential stature.”
Past terror attacks have prompted voters to seek reassurance from President Hollande, who early Friday chaired a special Defense Council meeting bringing together heads of all security agencies. Former Economy Minister Macron, who left the government last August, is seen as most closely associated with Hollande and could offer the prospect of continuity in crisis. Yet polls also show voters expressing concern about the 39-year-old candidate’s relative youth and limited government experience.
Polls rate Fillon most highly for experience in office. The ex-prime minister, who served under former President Nicolas Sarkozy for five years, focused squarely at his press conference on combatting “Islamist totalitarianism” via tougher anti-terror measures at home and a strategy to combat ISIS abroad that would involve closer cooperation with Russia. He may also have won the sympathy of some voters for being targeted by would-be attackers, which some analysts said was a result of his anti-radical Sunni Islam message.
In the race’s final days, news coverage will be split between the campaign and investigation into the Champs Élysées attack, in which the attacker, identified as “Karim C,” was shot dead. According to Agence France-Presse news agency, anti-terror investigators were questioning three suspected accomplices who were detained during nighttime raids on their homes.
The deceased suspect had previously been sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder, police sources told Le Figaro. Released after serving 12 years, he worked as a clothes salesman in the town of Chelles near Paris.