French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has been accused of exploiting Thursday’s deadly attack in Paris, as the killing cast a shadow over the final campaigning before the first round of elections on Sunday.
Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration National Front and one of the front-runners in the tight presidential race, called on the government Friday to immediately reinstate national borders, close Islamist mosques, and deport foreigners on a terror watch list in the wake of the attack – which was claimed by the Islamic State group. The comments drew an immediate response from Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who accused her of “shamelessly exploiting fear and emotion for purely political ends.”
Meanwhile, more details have emerged about the man who opened fire with an automatic rifle on a police van on the Champs-Élysées in central Paris, killing one police officer and wounding two others before he was shot dead by security forces. Here’s what we know so far:
- The attacker, 39-year-old French national Karim Cheurfi, was known to French security services. He had served a lengthy sentence for attempted murder in 2003 for the shooting of two police officers, and while in detention he shot and wounded a prison officer after seizing his gun. He had since been released on parole.
- He had previously been identified as a potential Islamist extremist, and was detained in February on suspicion of preparing an attack on police, before being let go for lack of evidence. According to France’s BFMTV, he had boasted of wanting to kill police on the Telegram messaging service.
- Three of his family members have been placed in detention, the French interior ministry said.
- A statement from ISIS claiming the attack and referring to the gunman as “the Belgian” has led to confusion over whether an accomplice may have been involved or is planning further attacks. Reuters reported that a French interior ministry spokesman confirmed Friday that a second man was being sought, based on information from Belgian security services, but it was too early to say whether he was connected. A note supporting ISIS was found at the scene of the attack.
Islam, immigration, and security were already hot topics in the campaign, one of the closest presidential races in recent memory, with only 4.5 percentage points separating the top four candidates in the latest poll.
France has been under a state of emergency since 2015, when a string of Islamist terror attacks kicked off, resulting in the deaths of more than 230 people on French soil.
Three of the four leading candidates in the race – Le Pen, centrist independent Emmanuel Macron, and conservative François Fillon – cancelled campaign events Friday in the wake of the killing.
But as expected, the attack dominated the final day of the campaign. Fillon used the shooting to pledge a hard line against Islamist terror, saying his foreign policy priority would be the destruction of ISIS and calling for the creation of 10,000 more police jobs.
“In times such as these, we have to demonstrate that France is united,” he said. “We also have to be clear that we are in a state of emergency. We are at war. This fight for freedom and for the security of the French people must be the priority of the next five-year term.”
Macron, who is narrowly leading Le Pen in the polls, also pledged to hire 10,000 new police and create a task force to defeat ISIS, but he urged voters to “not give in to fear.” He said Le Pen’s claims that she could prevent such attacks were misleading.
“There’s no such thing as zero risk. Anyone who pretends [otherwise] is both irresponsible and deceitful,” he told RTL Radio on Friday.
Cazeneuve said the government’s security apparatus was “fully mobilized” following the attack, and that more than 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers would be on duty for the election Sunday.
Campaigning will officially end at midnight Friday, before voters go to the polls for the first round of voting on Sunday. Unless one candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, which has never happened before, the top two candidates will then face off in a May 7 runoff.
Opinion polls have repeatedly forecast that Macron and Le Pen will make it through to the runoff, with Macron predicted to prevail.
In an unusual move by a U.S. president, Donald Trump weighed in referencing the election on Twitter: “The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”