France investigates Champs-Elysees attacker as presidential vote looms
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France investigates Champs-Elysees attacker as presidential vote looms

Analysts say policeman’s killing could shake up Sunday’s four-way contest, thrusting security to the fore

Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo (2R) and the Mayor of the 8th arrondissement of Paris Jeanne D'hauteserre (R) stand as they pay their respect at the site of a shooting on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on April 21, 2017, a day after a gunman opened fire on police along the avenue, killing a policeman and wounding two others. (AFP/Francois Guillot)
Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo (2R) and the Mayor of the 8th arrondissement of Paris Jeanne D'hauteserre (R) stand as they pay their respect at the site of a shooting on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on April 21, 2017, a day after a gunman opened fire on police along the avenue, killing a policeman and wounding two others. (AFP/Francois Guillot)

PARIS (AFP) — French investigators were Saturday probing the background of the jihadist who shot dead a policeman on Paris’s prestigious Champs-Elysees avenue as a jittery nation drew breath on the eve of the first round of a close-run presidential election.

Candidates have clashed over how to protect France since Thursday night’s shooting, which the Islamic State (IS) group claimed as the work of one of its devotees.

Analysts say the attack could shake up the four-way contest between far-right leader Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron, conservative Francois Fillon and Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.

A note praising IS was found next to the body of 39-year-old gunman Karim Cheurfi, who shot dead an officer and wounded two others before being killed in a firefight that sent tourists on the world-famous boulevard rushing for cover.

French riot police officers patrol on the Champs Elysees boulevard, with the Arc of Triomphe in background, in Paris, Friday, April 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
French riot police officers patrol on the Champs-Elysees boulevard, with the Arc of Triomphe in background, in Paris, Friday, April 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

The violent scenes thrust security to the fore of campaigning after nine months of relative calm. Le Pen, Fillon and Macron cancelled their final rallies Friday.

Le Pen has moved quickly to present herself as the strongest defender against Islamist radicals in a country scarred by a string of attacks that have claimed 239 lives since 2015.

The 48-year-old leader of the anti-immigration National Front (FN) called for France to “immediately” take back control of its borders from the European Union and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist.

French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen speaks during a press conference on April 21, 2017 at her campaign headquarters in Paris. (Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)
French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen speaks during a press conference on April 21, 2017 at her campaign headquarters in Paris. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)

“This war against us is ceaseless and merciless,” she said, accusing the Socialist government of a “cowardly” response to the threat.

Fillon and Macron also hastily convened televised briefings in which they vowed to protect the country.

“Some haven’t taken the full measure of the evil,” 63-year-old Fillon said, promising an “iron-fisted” approach.

Macron, a 39-year-old moderate whom Fillon has portrayed as too inexperienced for the top job, said France was paying for the intelligence jobs cuts made when Fillon was prime minister between 2007 and 2012.

French presidential election candidate for the right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party, Francois Fillon delivers a statement to the press at his campaign headquarters in Paris on April 21, 2017. (Patrick KOVARIK / AFP)
French presidential election candidate for the right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party, Francois Fillon delivers a statement to the press at his campaign headquarters in Paris on April 21, 2017. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP)

Describing the Champs-Elysees shooting as an attack on democracy, he urged voters: “Do not give in to fear.”

Veteran left-winger Melenchon, 65, was the only one of the four to stick to his schedule.

A BVA poll conducted on Thursday and Friday showed Le Pen and Macron tied on 23 percent, ahead of Melenchon with 19.5 percent and Fillon on 19 percent.

Cheurfi drew up alongside a police van and shot an officer sitting at the wheel, sending shoppers and strollers on the ritzy Champs-Elysees scattering for safety.

French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement Emmanuel Macron gestures as he delivers a speech during a campaign meeting in Nantes, on April 19, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD)
French presidential election candidate for the En Marche! movement Emmanuel Macron gestures as he delivers a speech during a campaign meeting in Nantes, on April 19, 2017. (AFP/Jean-Sebastien Evrard)

He was killed while trying to flee on foot. A German tourist was slightly wounded in the crossfire.

A statement by IS’s propaganda agency Amaq issued shortly after the attack identified the assailant as “Abu Yussef the Belgian”.

The claim had raised concerns that a possible second attacker could be on the loose.

French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon at a campaign rally in Lille, April 12, 2017. (Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)
French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon at a campaign rally in Lille, April 12, 2017. (Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)

French authorities said a man sought in Belgium, who was suspected of having planned to travel to France on Thursday, had handed himself in to police in the Belgian city of Antwerp.

Cheurfi was arrested in February on suspicion of plotting to kill police officers but released because of a lack of evidence.

A serial offender, he spent nearly 14 years in prison for a range of crimes including attacks on the police. He had shown “no signs of radicalization” while in custody, said France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins.

The shooting came days after two men were arrested in Marseille on suspicion of planning an imminent attack and follows a series of deadly strikes around Europe in the past month, targeting Stockholm, London and the Saint Petersburg metro.

This photo provided by the AP on the condition that its source not be revealed, shows Karim Cheurfi. Police have searched a home in a suburb east of Paris believed linked to the attack on police on the Champs-Elysees. (AP Photo)
This photo provided by the AP on the condition that its source not be revealed, shows Karim Cheurfi. Police have searched a home in a suburb east of Paris believed linked to the attack on police on the Champs-Elysees. (AP Photo)

On Sunday, around 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers will be deployed to protect voters.

Until now, surveys showed the French to be more concerned about jobs and the economy than terrorism or security, though analysts warned Thursday’s shooting could change that.

US President Donald Trump tweeted that the attack “will have a big effect” on the election.

“If it were to benefit someone that would clearly be Marine Le Pen who has dominated this issue throughout the campaign, or Francois Fillon, because of his stature of statesman,” Adelaide Zulfikarpasic of BVA pollsters said.

Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve accused Le Pen of attempting to make political hay out of the killing, saying she was “seeking, as she does after every tragedy, to take advantage of it.”

Shop owners and restaurant managers shepherded their customers to backrooms and basements when the shooting began on the Champs-Elysees.

“We heard the shots and people were running in every direction. But people were calm,” said Lebanese tourist Zeina Bitar, 45, who was shopping with her children nearby.

France has been under a state of emergency for nearly a year and a half.

The string of terror attacks began in January 2015 with a massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine.

The following November, IS gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people in Paris, and a Tunisian man rammed a truck through crowds in Nice last July, killing 86 people.

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