Terrorism dominates last day of French presidential campaign

Marine Le Pen had complained opponents refused to discuss issue during the campaign

Paris' Champs-Elysees looked more like a combat zone than the shopping mecca it is on Thursday night after a drive-up-and-shoot attack in which a police officer was killed. Islamic State have claimed responsibility. Video: REUTERS

 

Details emerged on Friday about the man who perpetrated France’s latest jihadist attack by shooting dead one policeman and injuring two others on the Champs Élysee in Paris.

The attack on Thursday evening occurred 72 hours before the first round of the French presidential election. “Democracy is targeted,” said Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate who holds a slight advantage over his rivals in opinion polls.

The choice of victims and place appeared to be deliberate. The Islamic State terror group, which issued a dubious claim of responsibility for the attack, has long urged its followers in France to attack police and soldiers.

The French boast that the Champs-Élysées is “the most beautiful avenue in the world”. It is the scene of Bastille Day parades and victory laps by newly elected presidents.

The profile of Karim Cheurfi, the 39-year-old Frenchman who carried out the attack and was shot dead by police, closely resembles that of other jihadists who have killed 238 people in France in two years. Cheurfi was a French Arab Muslim with four criminal convictions.

Cheurfi pulled up alongside a police van parked near the top of the Champs-Élysées in a grey Audi car at 8.47pm, the prosecutor, François Molins said. The van was parked in front of the Turkish tourism office, in anticipation of a demonstration by Kurds.

“I saw a man dressed in black approach the van, as if he wanted to ask a question,” an eyewitness told Le Parisien newspaper. “He pulled a Kalashnikov out from under his black down coat and fired.”

The first two bullets hit the policeman in the driver’s seat in the head, killing him instantly. The policemen who died was named as Xavier Jugele (37), who joined the Paris police force in 2010 from the gendarmerie. A gay rights activist, he had been part of the response team that rushed to the Bataclan concert hall in the wake of the terrorist attack there in November 2015.

His killer, Cheurfi, fired four more shots through the back window of the van, wounding two more policemen. He began to run and was shot dead by policemen standing outside the van. Witnesses said the shoot-out was very loud and lasted only 30 seconds.

Police found “a handwritten paper defending the cause of Islamic State” near Cheurfi’s body, Molins said. They also found the addresses of police services scribbled on bits of paper in the grey Audi, along with a loaded hunting rifle, a secateurs, explosives, two kitchen knives and a Koran.

‘Isolated personality’

Jean-Laurent Panier, Cheurfi’s former lawyer, told BFMTV the killer was “a fragile, very isolated personality whose development seemed arrested. He didn’t talk about himself, and tried to fill his time playing video games... For me, his real problem was psychological.”

Cheurfi’s obsession with the police dated back to 2001, when he twice attempted to murder policemen. He was jailed four 14 years, and was also prosecuted for attacking prison guards and a fellow convict. In December 2016, and again in January 2017, witnesses told police of Cheurfi’s desire to avenge Muslims killed in Syria by killing police, to make contact with Islamic State, which is also known as Isis, and to buy weapons.

Cheurfi purchased two hunting knives, masques and a GoPro camera like those used by jihadists to film their atrocities on the internet in January. He was briefly detained in February, but the office of the prosecutor in Meaux concluded there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute him.   

Confusion surrounds Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the attack via its Amaq “press agency” overnight on Thursday. The claim wrongly attributed the attack to “Abu Yusef the Belgian”.

Cheurfi lived with his mother in Chelles, east of Paris. Police found a portable computer, mobile telephones, prayer rugs, an application for a hunting licence and religious books in a four-hour search of her home. Three of Cheurfi’s relatives were detained for questioning, in the hope of determining whether he had accomplices.

Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the extreme right-wing Front National (FN) in Sunday’s election, had complained that her opponents refused to talk about terrorism during the presidential campaign. The issue totally dominated the last day of the campaign.

Intimidation

The three leading candidates, Le Pen, the conservative François Fillon and Macron, summoned media to their campaign headquarters on Friday. France was at war, Le Pen and Fillon stressed. Macron warned of the danger of giving in to fear and intimidation.

“This war against us is pitiless and relentless,” Le Pen said. For 10 years, she alleged, “under right-wing and left-wing governments, everything has been done for us to lose it. We must have a president who acts and protects.”

Fillon promised to make the fight against terrorism his top priority if he is elected. “We’re under a state of emergency that will not be lifted before a long time,” he said. “We are in a war that will be long. The enemy is powerful. Its networks are numerous. Its accomplices live among us and beside us.”

The socialist prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve took the rare step of publicly denouncing Le Pen and Fillon, in a statement from the steps of the prime minister’s office. The candidates had chosen “excess and divison” he said, accusing Le Pen of “shamelessly exploiting fear and emotion for purely political ends”.

Cazeneuve also criticised Fillon, a former prime minister, for promising to create 10,000 new police jobs. “How can one believe a candidate on this subject who, when he was prime minister [from 2007 until 2012] , did away with 13,000 positions in the interior security forces?” Cazeneuve asked.