French Police officers patrol the Champs Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris on April 21, 2017 (Philippe Lopez/AFP)
The killing of a policeman by a suspected Islamist pushed national security to the top of the French political agenda on Friday, two days before the presidential election, with leading candidates clashing over how to keep citizens safe.
With the first round of voting in the two-stage election to take place on Sunday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, an anti-EU politician who wants to ditch the euro, seized on the Paris shooting to push her policies on national security.
Le Pen – narrowly trailing frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in opinion polls – said she would take steps to beat “Islamist terrorism” if elected, including introducing tougher immigration and border controls.
Macron, a former economy minister in the government that Le Pen has criticised repeatedly for its security record, said the solutions were not as simple as she suggested. The centrist candidate, a political novice compared with his opponents, said there “no such thing as zero risk” and anyone who said otherwise was irresponsible.
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There are four leading candidates in a race that is still too close to call. Sunday’s round of voting will be followed by a second-round runoff on May 7 between the top two candidates.
Macron is in the lead with 24 percent of the first-round vote, ahead of Le Pen who had fallen back slightly to 21.5 percent, according to an Elabe survey of voter intentions taken before the shooting.
Conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister, and the far left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon were snapping at their heels with 20 and 19.5 percent respectively.
The attack on Thursday night on the Champs Elysees boulevard added a new source of unpredictability to a closely contested election that will decide the management of France’s 2.2 trillion euro economy, which vies with Britain for the rank of fifth largest in the world.
The outcome could also have a bearing on France’s place in Europe and the world. Should Le Pen win, it could deal a hammer blow to the European Union, which is still reeling from Britain’s decision to leave the bloc.
All the candidates are seeking to woo the high proportion of people that are undecided about who to vote for – 31 percent according to an Ipsos poll on Friday.
Fillon also seized on the attack, which was claimed by Islamic State, saying the fight against “Islamist totalitarianism” should be the priority of the next president. “It’s us or them,” he said.
Financial markets though shrugged off the latest twist in the presidential campaign with French bond yields hitting a three-month low on Friday.
The Champs Elysees shooting is the latest in a series of attacks by Islamist militants on France in recent years in which more than 200 people have been killed. A truck ploughed into people in Nice on Bastille Day last year killing more than 80 people while coordinated attacks across Paris including the Bataclan concert hall claimed about 130 lives in November 2015. There have also been attacks on a Jewish school, a satirical weekly and a kosher market.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter that the shooting would influence the French election.
“Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!” he said.
However previous attacks that have taken place soon before elections, including the November 2015 attacks in Paris ahead of regional polls and the shooting in a Jewish school before the 2012 presidentials, did not appear to change the course of those ballots in favour of those espousing tougher national security.
An assault on a soldier in February at the Paris Louvre museum by a man wielding a machete also had no obvious impact on this year’s opinion polls, which have consistently said that voters see unemployment and trustworthiness of politicians as bigger issues.
SECURITY FORCES ON ALERT
A French policeman was shot dead and two others were wounded in Thursday night’s attack in central Paris.
After an emergency meeting of security officials, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said security forces, including elite units, were on alert to back up the 50,000 police earmarked to ensure citizens’ safety during the election.
“The government is fully mobilised. Nothing must be allowed to impede the fundamental democratic process of our country,” Cazeneuve told reporters. “It falls to us not to give in to fear and intimidation and manipulation which would play into the hands of the enemy.”
Controls on immigration and national security are cornerstones of Le Pen’s National Front agenda and on Friday she said she would reinstate border checks and expel foreigners who are on watch lists of intelligence services.
Macron was quick to respond to his rival’s comments.
“I’ve heard Madame Le Pen saying again recently that with her in charge, certain attacks would have been avoided,” he said on RTL Radio. “There’s no such thing as zero risk. Anyone who pretends (otherwise) is both irresponsible and deceitful.”
In the Elabe poll, which was conducted on Wednesday and Thursday, both Fillon and Melenchon were seen narrowing Macron and Le Pen’s lead over them.
Should Macron and Le Pen make it to the second round, the former economy minister was projected to win the runoff – and thus the presidency – with 65 percent against 35 percent for Le Pen, the survey for BFM TV and L’Express magazine showed.
Fillon, who has slowly clawed back some ground lost after being hit by a fake jobs scandal, saw his score in the first round rise half a percentage point to 20 percent.
Melenchon, who would hike taxes on the rich and spend 100 billion euros ($107 billion) of borrowed money on vast housebuilding and renewable energy projects, gained 1.5 points to 19.5 percent as he built further on momentum he has seen after strong performances in television debates.
If Melenchon makes it to the runoff, he is projected to beat both Le Pen and Fillon by comfortable margins although he is seen losing to Macron 41 percent to 59 percent.