PARIS — Warnings about an imminent terrorist attack had hung ominously in the air in the final weeks of the French presidential election. On Tuesday, police arrested two suspects in the southern city of Marseille after finding a cache of weapons and bomb-making ingredients in their apartment. But with the world focused on French politics like never before, that spectre of terrorism crashing into the political campaign became a disturbing reality last night in the French capital.
Already hit by two major terrorist attacks in the past three years, Paris was struck again — less than 72 hours before polls open Sunday. A gunman, possibly linked to terror group ISIS, shot dead a police officer and wounded two others on the iconic Champs Elysées shopping street. French newspaper Le Monde reported that the shooter, who was killed in a firefight with police, is Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old French citizen.
Voters will now go to the polls on Sunday in a highly unpredictable race, with four of the 11 candidates within striking distance of making the two-person runoff in May. A Le Monde editorial this morning said the attack might benefit far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has made the threat of Islamist extremism and immigration her main talking points. Last Monday, she even claimed there would have been no terror assaults in France under her watch. If history has shown any precedent, the far right may indeed get a boost. After terror attacks in and around Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, that killed 130 people, Le Pen’s National Front party had its strongest ever showing in regional elections.
The fight against extremism cannot be won overnight.
Bruno Jeanbart, head of polling institute OpinionWay told French daily Le Figaro that last night’s attack “reactivates themes on which Marine Le Pen is already well positioned.” And though Jeanbart points out that the Nov. 13 attacks were “much more powerful” than the Champs Elysées one, the latter still “puts the end of the campaign back on national matters” — a development that could benefit rightwing contenders like Le Pen.
Le Pen, reacting to the attacks this morning, said that France needs to tighten its borders and deport all foreigners on the terror watchlist. Emmanuel Macron, a centrist candidate just ahead of her in the polls, cautioned against giving into fear and noted that the fight against extremism cannot be won overnight. Le Parisien daily described the two reactions as “diametrically opposed.”
It's hard to overstate how high the stakes are Sunday. But like with all elections, we can be sure that some in France will vote with their head, others with their heart.