Deadly Paris Attack Halts Campaigning Before French Election

Updated on
  • Lead candidates cancel events after Islamic State shooting
  • Top two candidates on Sunday will go through to May 7 runoff

Paris Gunman Kills Policeman Three Days Before Election

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 canceled events planned for Friday and instead made televised statements about how they’d fight terrorism. Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon said he wouldn’t cede to “panic” and will continue with his plans for the day. No campaigning is allowed on Saturday -- a French tradition of a quiet election eve.

Police officers block the Champs Elysees following the attack, April 20.

Photographer: Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

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 pollster OpinionWay.

“I think this election is sufficiently unstable that it could still move things,” Jeanbart said. “Marine Le Pen is notably one to watch.”

Thursday’s attack, which was claimed by Islamic State and saw the assailant 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’d improve intelligence with a centralized anti-terror force. Fillon wanted greater cooperation with Russia and Iran. Melenchon said the best answer was to show France won’t give into violence and he’s going ahead with a drinks party for supporters in Paris this evening.

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 detain suspected radicals as his last act in government. Fillon said he’d 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.”

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in, saying in a tweet on Friday that the attack “will have a big effect on presidential election!”

Security Boosted

Without naming her, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve Friday took a swipe at Le Pen’s anti-European positions. After an emergency meeting of key cabinet members, he cited messages of support from across Europe and said “being united is the best way to combat terrorism.” He called on the French not to cede to “fear, manipulation, division.”

Cazeneuve said 50,000 security forces will be mobilized 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, pushing French bond yields close to a four-year high.

“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.”

No ‘Vassal’

Melenchon, 65, says he doesn’t want to pull France out of the euro or the European Union, though like Le Pen he wants to overhaul EU treaties and impose political constraints on the European Central Bank. He’s also threatening to walk away if he doesn’t get what he wants.

“Europe, we’ll change it or leave it,” Melenchon said late Thursday on France 2 television, adding that he wants France to be a partner of the EU and Germany, not a “vassal.”

Melenchon remains in fourth position with 18.5 percent support, according to Bloomberg’s composite of polls. That compares with 19.5 percent for Fillon, 22.5 percent for Le Pen and 24 percent for Macron.

But it’s his momentum that is striking. It raises the prospect, albeit still unlikely, of two anti-EU candidates making it into the runoff.

What’s more, Melenchon’s plans to limit executive pay and restrict companies’ dividends may be encouraging some conservatives to swallow their objection to the financial scandals surrounding Fillon.

Read more about Fillon’s legal problems here

Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London, says facing either Fillon or Melenchon would give Le Pen her best chance of victory. If Melenchon did contest the presidency with Le Pen, investors may favor the nationalist.

“Both Le Pen and Melenchon represent a risk for markets, but Melenchon would be more disruptive for the French economy than Le Pen,” Frederic Leroux, global fund manager at Carmignac Gestion, said at a briefing in Paris Thursday.

— With assistance by Blaise Robinson

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