Fears Paris shooting will affect presidental election as first round looms

Kim Willsher in Paris
Marine Le Pen and François Fillon on the France 2 programme, during which the news of the attack emerged. Photograph: Reuters

It was to have been the final sprint to the first-round of voting in France’s presidential election; a chance for a last meeting or rally to get in the last word before the midnight guillotine on campaigning.

Instead, the first leadership election to be organised during a state of emergency ended with heightened fears of terrorism after the Champs Élysées shooting in which one police officer was killed.

Candidates who have spent much of the last three months on a peripatetic journey across France cancelled their final meetings amid evidence that they and their supporters could be targeted by terrorists.

After an emergency meeting at the Elysée on Friday morning, the prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said the French government was “entirely mobilised to ensure nothing disrupts” Sunday’s vote.

“We must not give in to fear, intimidation, manipulation and not fall into division and extremes … tolerance must win, unity must prevail,” he added.

Since the government declared a state of emergency after the November 2015 bombings and shootings in Paris, about 50,000 police and gendarmes and 7,000 soldiers have been patrolling the country. On Sunday, they have been directed to ensure security at the 60,000 polling stations.

On Friday, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, Front National leader Marine Le Pen, former prime minister François Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon announced they were calling off Friday meetings that had been scheduled before the midnight deadline for electioneering before Sunday’s vote.

The hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the France Insoumise (Unbowed France) movement, who has risen to challenge Fillon in third place in the polls, said he was maintaining his call for impromptu aperitif gatherings across the country. Mélenchon will be attending an “apéro des Insoumis” in Paris.

Macron, Le Pen and Fillon organised press conferences at their Paris campaign headquarters.

Le Pen called for France to engage in a “war against terrorism” to combat Islamic extremism that she described as a “barbaric and monstrous totalitarian ideology”.

In a tough response to the Champs Elysées shooting, she accused successive French governments of naivety, impotence and being too lax towards fundamentalists and called for the immediate expulsion of foreigners linked to Islamism and listed on the fiche “S”, the national list of suspects considered a potential risk to national security.

She demanded that those with joint nationality be stripped of their French citizenship and expelled to their country of origin and those with French nationality “known for their support of an enemy ideology” be subject to “immediate administrative or criminal attention”.

“This war is asymmetric and revolutionary, it is a war in which all the population, all the country is targeted; it is obvioulsy a war we cannot lose,” Le Pen told journalists.

“The Islamist, Salafist ideology has no right to be in France and should be banned. Preachers of hate should be expelled and their mosques closed.”

Hamon, who was interviewed on RMC radio, praised the police who he said had become targets “while acting as the shield that protects us”.

Details of the shooting on Thursday continued to emerge, though French police say they will not release the name of the gunman until further investigations have been completed.

At around 9pm the suspect got out of a car next to van full of police officers on the Champs Elysées and started firing with an automatic weapon. One officer was shot in the head and died instantly, two others were injured. The suspect was shot as he fled on foot still shooting.

The 39-year-old French man was known to anti-terrorist police but was not on the fiche “S”.

Tensions have been heightened across France after the arrest of two suspects in the southern city of Marseille on Tuesday. The men were believed to be planning an “imminent” attack to disrupt the election campaign.

As the fiercely contested presidential election enters its final two days, Thursday’s shooting will have repercussions far beyond the terrorism-weary French capital. Terrorism and security are high on the list of voters’ concerns, though unemployment and dwindling spending power are more pressing concerns. Analysts have long warned this could change if there was further bloodshed.

Any attack gives political ammunition to the rightwing candidates such as Le Pen and Fillon who are seen as hawkish on crime and security. Le Pen has vowed to shut France’s borders and to deport foreigners with suspected links to Islamic extremist organisations, overlooking the fact that most of those involved in terrorist attacks in France in recent years were French.

Pascal Perrineau, head of the Cevipof political research foundation at Sciences Po university, told the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris last month there was a danger the election could be derailed by a terrorist attack. “This is an election unlike any other; never before has a presidential vote happened in a state of emergency, which means the democratic process is under certain constraints,” he said.

“An attack could intrude on the electoral campaign; it could have an effect on the results right up until the second round. This we have never seen before.”

The Champs Élysées shooting happened when the 11 presidential candidates were taking part in a special live television programme on France 2 called 15 Minutes to Convince.

Fillon, the last candidate to appear on the programme, speaking just after 11pm when details of the shooting had emerged, praised the police forces. He also paid his respects on Twitter to the police who “give their lives to protect ours”.

Mélenchon wrote of his “emotion for the dead and injured police officers and their families”.

“Terrorist acts will never go unpunished,” he tweeted.

Macron told French radio: “This threat, this imponderable problem, is part of our daily lives for the years to come. I would like to express all my support for our police forces and more generally the forces of law and order. I am particularly thinking of the victim’s family.”

Fillon, of the conservative party Les Républicains, had planned to travel to the Alpine resort of Chamonix, and Le Pen to a animal welfare centre in the Saône-et-Loire region of central France.

The latest opinion polls suggest Le Pen and Macron will win Sunday’s vote to go through to the second round runoff on 7 May.