A woman places a flower to pay tribute to the French policeman slain Thursday evening on the Champs Elysees. (EPA Photo)
PARIS: The murder of a policeman on the Champs-Elysees has forced an early end to campaigning for the leading candidates in France’s presidential election as they head into Sunday’s first-round of voting with the race wide open.
Republican Francois Fillon, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron, and Socialist Benoit Hamon all cancelled events planned for Friday and instead made televised statements about how they would fight terrorism.
Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon said he would not cede to “panic” and would continue with his plans for the day. No campaigning is allowed on Saturday — a French tradition of a quiet election eve.
Melenchon and Fillon head into the first round hoping to snatch a place in the May 7 runoff from front-runners Le Pen and Macron after polls tightened during the last weeks.
The attack, which left one policeman dead and two others injured, could change the dynamic of the race once more, according to Bruno Jeanbart, head of political studies at the polling firm OpinionWay.
“I think this election is sufficiently unstable that it could still move things,” Jeanbart said. “Marine Le Pen is notably one to watch.”
US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, weighed in via Twitter by saying the attack “will have a big effect” on voting.
“Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”
The attack, which was claimed by Islamic State and resulted in the assailant being shot and killed as he tried to escape, took place while the candidates were appearing on a television interview show. Their impromptu reactions highlighted the stark differences between them.
Immediately after the attack, Le Pen reiterated her calls for border controls and a crackdown on radical Islam. Macron said her plans were “nonsense” and he would improve intelligence with a centralised anti-terror force. Fillon wanted greater cooperation with Russia and Iran.
Melenchon said the best answer was to show France would not give into violence and that he would go ahead with a drinks party for supporters in Paris on Friday evening.
The Champs-Elysees gunman had been detained in February for threatening police but then freed, two officials told The Associated Press on Friday. He was also convicted in 2003 of attempted homicide in the shootings of two police officers.
Investigators believe at this stage that the gunman, 39-year-old Frenchman Karim Cheurfi, was alone in killing a police officer and wounding two others and a German tourist on Thursday night.
On Friday Le Pen and Fillon both insisted France is “at war”. Le Pen accused previous governments of being “inadequate and weak” and asked President Francois Hollande to restore border controls and the detain suspected radicals as his last act in government.
Fillon said he would maintain the state of emergency that’s been in place since November 2015 when gunmen killed 130 people in attacks around Paris.
“We are in a war that will last: the enemy is powerful, its networks are deep, its accomplices live among us,” he said. “Some don’t seem to have understood the depth of the evil that’s attacking us and that I intend to combat with an iron fist.”
Macron warned against “giving in to exaggeration,” and said he was ready to deal with the terrorist menace with a “clear vision and precise objectives.”
Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 50,000 security forces would be mobilised for Sunday’s vote, with security concerns vying with economic issues at the top of voter concerns.
Le Pen topped the polls for the first round during much of the race with her pledges to cut immigration and defend French culture — while also aiming to take France out of the euro.
Investor concerns about a rupture of the currency union have been tempered by surveys showing she would eventually lose to either Macron or Fillon in the runoff. But a late surge in support for Melenchon has altered those calculations.
“This election is incredibly tight,” said Dominique Reynie, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris. “Whatever happens we are in for profound political change.”
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