Islamic State claimed credit for the death of a policeman and the wounding of two others in a shooting attack on the Champs-Élysées on Thursday night. A woman tourist was also wounded.
The Amaq “press agency” said the attack was carried out by “Yussef the Belgiani”. But the gunman, who was shot dead as he ran down the pavement firing at policemen, was a 39-year-old French citizen, identified by foreign media as Karim Cheroufi. Investigators found a written note defending Islamic State next to, a judicial source told Reuters.
The Paris prosecutor Francois Molins declined to reveal Cheroufi’s identity in a late night press conference, to protect the secrecy of the investigation. The attacker appeared to have acted alone, but police are seeking to determine “if he had accomplices,” Mr Molins said.
Police searched Cheroufi's home in Chelles, east of Paris, and detained three of his family members.
Cheroufi first came to the attention of the authorities when he stole a car in 2001. He seized a gun inside a police commissariat and attacked a police trainee. After four years in preventive detention, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempted murder in 2005. He was released in 2015, and was detained last February 23rd on suspicion he was planning to attack police. He figures in the files of the DGSE intelligence agency, and is believed to have been radicalised in prison.
The attack occurred three days before the first round of the French presidential election. “Nothing must interrupt the democratic rendez-vous,” prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve said after a defence council meeting on Friday morning. He appealed to the French “sense of responsibility” and appealed to his compatriots to “not give in to fear, intimidation, division. Obscurantism must be fought. Unity must prevail,” Mr Cazeneuve said.
The three leading presidential candidates, the conservative Francois Fillon, the far right candidate Marine Le Pen and the centrist Emmanuel Macron, all cancelled rallies on Friday. Mr Macron told France Inter radio it would be inappropriate to hold a gathering in his home town of Amiens after the death of the policeman, and that he did not want to divert police resources to protect his rally.
Fifty thousand police and gendarmes have been mobilised to protect 67,000 polling stations on Sunday.
Cheroufi pulled up alongside a police van near the top of the Champs-Élysées in a grey Audi car just before 9pm on Thursday. The van, from the 32nd public order intervention company, had been stationed in front of Turkish airlines in anticipation of a demonstration by Kurds.
The gunman jumped out of the car and opened fire with an automatic assault rifle on the van, fatally wounding a policeman in the head. Police found a pump-action shot gun and knives in the car.
Cheroufi then ran down the pavement, continuing to shoot at policemen who were patroling on foot. He was shot dead. Witnesses said the shoot-out was very loud, very violent and lasted only 30 seconds.
Police locked down the area overnight. Cheroufi’s Audi and the bullet-pocked police van were hauled away. Barricades were lifted around 5 am and metro service resumed. Several windows had been shattered by bullets. Cheroufi was shot dead in front of a Marks & Spencers store, which was to open an hour late on Friday morning.
Islamic State, which is also known as Isis, has specifically instructed its followers to attack French police and soldiers. This is the eleventh time they have been the target of jihadist attacks.
There is much speculation on the effect the attack will have on the election. It could favour Le Pen and Fillon, who have taken the hardest stand against Islamists and terrorism. They advocate virtually the same measures: expulsion of foreigners on the “S” watchlist, prosecution of French jihadists for “intelligence with the enemy,” the closure of “radical” mosques and cutting off foreign financing for Muslim groups in France.
Le Pen talks of these measures in an angry tone and blames the government for its “laxity”, while Mr Fillon, who was prime minister for five years, is more calm.
The youth and inexperience of Mr Macron could work against him in the climate of anxiety.
Because voters are dissatisfied with the choice of candidates, abstention was expected to reach a record high of close to 30 per cent. Commentators have speculated that a “citizens’ reflex” comparable to that which brought millions of protestors onto French streets after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 could increase participation on Sunday.