Senior French officials say Thursday’s shooting in Paris and a planned attack foiled by police in Marseilles earlier this week are part of an effort by radical Islamists to influence the result of France’s upcoming election.
They fear more terrorism is being planned — including possibly an attack on polling day.
“They want to influence French political life by directly impacting the course or even the organization of the polls,” Thibault de Montbrial, former head of the French foreign ministry’s internal think tank, the Center for Analysis and Prevision, told French newspaper Le Figaro.
French authorities say the gunman, named swiftly by the Islamic State terror group via its Amaq news agency as Belgian Abu Yousif al-Bajiki, opened fire on a police car parked on the Champs-Élysées, hitting three police officers and a tourist during the attack outside a Marks and Spencer clothing store.
The man was armed with a Kalashnikov rifle and was shot dead as he tried to flee. One of the police officers died on the scene. Initial eyewitness reports said the dead gendarme had been shot while in his car, which was stationary at traffic lights. The gunman dashed out of another vehicle and without hesitation opened fire.
A French interior ministry spokesman said more than one attacker may have been involved and confirmed the police had been “deliberately targeted.” A second suspect turned himself in to authorities Friday in Antwerp, Belgium.
French President François Hollande held an emergency meeting with his top advisers and security chiefs Friday to discuss how to safeguard Sunday’s election. “A national tribute will be paid to this policeman who was killed in such a cowardly way,” the French leader later told reporters.
British counterterrorism expert Olivier Guitta told VOA the unusual speed with which IS claimed responsibility for the attack would seem to indicate the shooting was not just ‘inspired’ by the terror group but was also planned by it.
“The likelihood of more terror attacks in the French presidential elections is very high,” he said. “Jihadists will try to influence the vote,” added Guitta, who runs GlobalStrat, a London-based risk consultancy.
Thursday’s shooting took place as the 11 official candidates in the election were debating live on French national television. Some political commentators speculated the attack may give a boost to Marine Le Pen, the far right populist who says immigration threatens France’s security and culture.
Le Pen’s opponents say the jihadists want her to win, charging that the hardline anti-immigrant policies she wants to introduce would help militant groups like Islamic State to recruit. Her supporters deny the claim.
During the debate Le Pen, who was being tipped by pollsters to top the list in the first round of the election Sunday but who has been losing ground in recent days, emphasized her long-standing call for France to leave the Schengen free movement zone and introduce much tighter border controls.
“The influx of migrants is in front of us. Control our borders, otherwise we won’t stop this wave!” she said.
As news of the attack emerged, the candidates appeared to try to outdo each other in the toughness of their proposals for protecting France from terrorism. “Enough of laxity, enough of naivety,” Le Pen declared. Conservative candidate François Fillon proposed arresting hundreds of militant suspects on the terror watch list, like Thursday’s gunman.
Tight presidential race
Pollsters have been saying for weeks that the presidential race is very tight between the top four candidates, Le Pen, Fillon, the centrist and pro-EU Emmanuel Macron and left-winger candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. Analysts have said a major last-minute event could easily swing the election.
Macron, a former economy minister who has little security experience, adopted a more measured tone than Le Pen and Fillon in Thursday’s debate, cautioning France would have to live with terrorism for many years to come. In a poll midweek, Macron appeared to have edged ahead of Le Pen.
On Tuesday, police in Marseilles arrested two men on suspicion of planning an “imminent” attack in France. Police said they found explosives and guns at an apartment linked to the suspects. The presidential candidates were warned by security chiefs to ramp up their own personal security.
France’s intelligence chief said they suspected the pair, both French-born and in their twenties, of plotting an attack to coincide with the election.
Midweek Macron and Le Pen jousted over security measures in separate radio interviews. “Today fundamentalist Islam is waging war and the measures are not being taken to limit the risks,” Le Pen said on RFI radio.
Macron shot back on RTL Radio: “There’s no such thing as zero risk… I hear Madame Le Pen… anyone who says that they can make it otherwise is both irresponsible and a liar.”
Two years ago, Le Pen’s National Front topped the first round of regional elections weeks after the 2015 Paris attacks that left 130 dead. But the apparent boost given the National Front did not prevail in the second round and the party failed to win political control of any region.