By James McAuley and William Branigin,
PARIS — French authorities on Friday identified a small-time criminal, apparently inspired by the Islamic State, as the perpetrator of a deadly attack on police officers in a shooting that set France on edge and darkened the final day of campaigning in the country’s pivotal presidential election.
Despite a promise not to campaign following the attack Thursday night on Paris’s renowned Champs-Élysées boulevard, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen reinforced her anti-immigrant message in a Friday speech, calling on the French government to immediately reinstate border checks and expel foreigners being monitored by the intelligence services.
“My government of national unity will implement this policy, so that the republic will live, and that France will live,” she said at an impromptu news conference.
Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve rejected early calls to postpone Sunday’s first round of voting, telling reporters Friday morning that “nothing should hinder this fundamental democratic moment for our country.” He pledged heightened security, including deployments of heavily armed soldiers from a two-year-old counterterrorism campaign called Operation Sentinelle, as French voters go to the polls.
In Washington, President Trump waded into France’s political morass with predictions that the Champs-Élysées attack would “have a big effect” on the election and would “probably help” Le Pen, who has raised many of the same anti-immigrant and security issues that Trump promoted during his campaign.
One police officer was killed and two others were seriously injured when a gunman, formally identified Friday as Karim Cheurfi, opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle on a police patrol parked on Paris’s best-known thoroughfare, sending pedestrians fleeing into side streets. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Cheurfi was then shot dead as he tried to escape, Paris prosecutor François Molins told reporters. Investigators subsequently found a number of knives and a pump-action shotgun in Cheurfi’s car, as well as a message apparently scribbled in support of the Islamic State.
The note praising the extremist group apparently fell out of Cheurfi’s pocket, Molins said, adding that pieces of paper with addresses of police stations were found in his car.
Cheurfi, a 39-year-old of Algerian descent who was born in the Paris suburbs, had a criminal record and was well-known to authorities, Molins said. In a profile that mirrored those of perpetrators of other recent, smaller-scale attacks, Cheurfi had been convicted at least four times since 2003 and had spent nearly 14 years in prison for crimes ranging from burglary and theft to attempted murder.
In 2001, he fired on and wounded two men, one of them a plainclothes police officer, who were chasing him as he drove a stolen car. He was released from prison in October 2015 and lived with his mother in an eastern suburb of Paris.
Earlier this year, Molins said, French authorities became aware that Cheurfi had sought to purchase weapons and had made statements about wanting to kill police officers. As recently as April 7, Molins said, authorities had interviewed Cheurfi following a trip to Algeria. However, a judge decided not to revoke his probation.
Cheurfi’s former lawyer, Jean-Laurent Panier, told BFM TV on Friday that his client was “extremely isolated” and a “psychologically fragile character” whose problems went untreated. He said Cheurfi never spoke about religion, adding that he talked mainly about “how to fill his daily life with video games.”
The slain police officer, identified as Xavier Jugelé, 37, was a member of the LGBT police association and had spent his entire career in Paris, police officials said.
In November, according to L’Express newspaper, Jugelé had attended a concert that reopened the Bataclan Theater, the main target in a series of Islamic State attacks on Paris in November 2015. “This concert is meant to celebrate life,” he told People magazine. “To say no to terrorists.”
It was not immediately clear whether the timing of Thursday’s attack was linked to the presidential election. But it appeared that way to many French voters, coming as the 11 candidates in the race were speaking in a widely watched televised debate.
The election has become a critical test of strength for Le Pen and her National Front party at a time when nationalism has overshadowed other votes in the West, including Trump’s victory and last year’s British referendum on leaving the European Union.
Le Pen’s opponents, meanwhile, have urged France to stand against the hard-line rhetoric that has dominated her campaign.
In an interview Friday with the Associated Press, Trump predicted that the attack would likely boost Le Pen, who has been sharply critical of “Islamist terrorism” for weeks. Trump said he was not explicitly endorsing her but that he believes she is the candidate who is “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”
Trump also told the news agency that he is not worried about emboldening terrorists by saying that an attack can have an impact on a democratic election.
“Another terrorist attack in Paris,” Trump wrote earlier Friday in a Twitter post. “The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”
The attack was claimed with unusual speed Thursday night by the Islamic State through its affiliated Amaq News Agency, which said it was carried out by a Belgian national it identified only by the pseudonym Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki. But authorities and analysts urged caution in interpreting that claim.
“It’s never happened in the past so quickly,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, an intelligence expert and director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, referring to the Islamic State’s tendencies in claiming attacks.
“Perhaps the individuals in question had some kind of coordination and were in contact” with the Islamic State, he said, “but we should also not rule out the possibility that Amaq was too hasty in releasing its statements.”
Molins agreed. Regardless of Le Pen’s exhortation to expel all those in what sometimes is called France’s “S File,” a list of approximately 10,000 names that authorities suspect of potential Islamist radicalism, Cheurfi was never included in that file. According to Molins, at no point in his long period of incarceration did he “show signs of radicalization or proselytism.”
“Now, it is a matter of determining the precise context of the act and possible complicities in its execution,” he said.
Branigin reported from Washington. Souad Mekhennet in Frankfurt, Germany, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.