News & Politics

Deadly Paris shooting could influence voters on eve of key French election

French police leave the house of the gunman killed in a shootout with police on the Champs Elysees Avenue, in the Paris suburb of Chelles, France, April 21. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
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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 causing candidates to suspend last-minute pitches before the Sunday 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 an 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. Early Friday morning, French authorities were 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.

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, “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, the Reuters news agency reported, citing legal sources. 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.

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