By James McAuley,
PARIS — A deadly shootout on the Champs Elysees, Paris’s most famous avenue, darkened the final day of campaigning in France’s pivotal presidential election on Friday, stoking fears of terrorist violence and firmly embedding the nation’s security as the main issue of Sunday’s vote.
As the 11 candidates were speaking in a televised debate event before a reported audience of millions Thursday night, a gunman opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle on a police patrol parked on the avenue, killing one officer and seriously injuring two others as a wave of panicked pedestrians fled into side streets.
The gunman was then shot dead as he tried to escape, the Paris prosecutor told reporters.
Francois Molins, the Paris prosecutor, declined to disclose the gunman’s identity because of the ongoing investigation, which included the discovery of a number of knives and a pump-action shotgun in the gunman’s car.
European intelligence officials confirmed to The Washington Post that the attacker was named Karim Cheurfi and was known to French intelligence, having previously come to authorities’ attention because of radical Islamist links.
Two French officials revealed to the Associated Press that the gunman had actually been detained in February for allegedly threatening police but was then released for lack of evidence.
Early Friday morning, French authorities were also looking for a second suspect in connection with the shooting, Pierre-Henry Brandet, a spokesman for the French Interior Ministry, said Friday on Europe 1 radio. A Belgian man was initially identified as the suspect, but authorities from that country said that he had been misidentified and that they were still trying to determine whether any Belgians were involved.
As the candidates vowed to suspend campaign events to honor the fallen officer, analysts were quick to say that the shooting, in a country that has suffered a string of devastating terror attacks in the past two years, was particularly advantageous for the right-wing, anti-immigrant presidential contenders — especially Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front who has been sharply critical of “Islamist terrorism” for weeks.
Despite a promise not to campaign, Le Pen spoke on Friday morning, 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 in an impromptu press conference.
President Trump, in a Twitter post early Friday, predicted the Paris shootings will have a significant influence on the French election. He did not cite the possible fallout on the vote, but supporters of Le Pen have raised many of the same anti-immigrant and security issues that were pushed by Trump.
“Another terrorist attack in Paris,” Trump wrote. “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, by the Islamic State through its affiliated Amaq News Agency on Thursday night, saying it was carried out by a Belgian national it identified only by the pseudonym Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki.
But analysts urged caution in interpreting the information.
“It’s never happened in the past so quickly,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, an intelligence expert and the director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, referring to the Islamic State tendency to claim attacks.
“Perhaps the individuals in question had some kind of coordination and were in contact with them,” he said, referring to the Islamic State, “but we should also not rule out the possibility that Amaq was too hasty in releasing its statements.”
On Friday, French police detained three family members of the dead gunman in the Paris suburbs, the Reuters news agency reported, citing legal sources.
The attack is expected to weigh heavily on voters’ minds as they prepare to go to the polls Sunday for the first round of the presidential election, among the most crucial France has seen in decades. In the face of rising political extremes, at stake is whether the country will remain in the European Union.
Up until now, the contentious campaign has featured many themes — immigration, unemployment, taxation, globalization — but has lacked a central, defining issue. But Thursday’s attack, analysts say, is a last minute game changer.
“Now there is a structuring thematic, and that thematic is terrorism,” said François Heisbourg, a defense expert and former French presidential advisor on national security. “But if terrorism will now be at the front of everyone’s mind, we have no idea how that plays.”
The candidates, especially on the right, wasted no time in emphasizing the gravity of the issue.
Echoing Le Pen, François Fillon, the embattled contender from France’s more mainstream conservative party,, said Friday that the fight against “Islamist totalitarianism” should be “the priority of the next government.”
By contrast, Emmanuel Macron, the popular independent candidate vying for the presidency, however, was quick to argue against any fearmongering.
“We must not yield to fear today,” he said Thursday. “This is what our assailants are waiting for, and it’s their trap.”
It remains unclear what kind of effect the Champs Elysees attack could have on French voters. Similar incidents in the past have led to both the embrace and rejection of right-wing agendas.
In 2002, for instance, a law and order scandal just before the first round of the vote partially assisted Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen and founder of the National Front, to win enough votes to enter the second and final round. Le Pen ultimately lost by a landslide in that final contest, but his momentary rise would have been unlikely without the last-minute incident, experts say.
But in 2012, for instance, a terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in the final weeks before the French election that year did not swing the polls in favor of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, then the incumbent, hardline president with a reputation for being tough on crime. François Hollande, a socialist, won that election instead.
Similarly, in advance of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the murder of Jo Cox, a pro-“Remain” member of the British parliament, by a nationalist supporter of the “Leave” campaign, did not dissuade British voters from voting to exit the European Union, as analysts had speculated it might.
France in 2017, of course, presents a different scenario: it has been hit by a deadly wave of terrorist violence in the past two years that has claimed the lives of at least 230 people and injured hundreds of others.
Thursday’s shooting — on the most famous boulevard in the French capital, always crowded with tourists and commuters — came just two days after authorities arrested two men in the southern city of Marseille on suspicion of plotting what Paris prosecutors described as an “imminent” and “violent” assault. Police discovered an Islamic State flag and three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of explosives in one suspect’s home.
The Islamic State has asserted responsibility for previous attacks in France, including a coordinated November 2015 terrorist assault on multiple targets in Paris that left 130 people dead and more than 360 wounded.
After that attack and others in the past two years — many perpetrated by Islamic State militants or those claiming to be inspired by the extremist group — terrorism and national security have become crucial issues in the most contentious election France has seen in decades.
Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate, has campaigned heavily on an anti-immigrant platform and what she has couched as the need to defend France from “Islamist globalization.” In the final days of the campaign, she said she would halt immigration altogether if elected president.
Souad Mekhennet in Frankfurt, Germany and Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.