Paris attack kills police officer
Gunman had been detained in February, but released
PARIS (AP) — The Champs-Elysees gunman who shot and killed a police officer just days before France’s presidential election was detained in February for threatening police but then freed, two officials told The Associated Press today. He was also convicted in 2003 of attempted homicide in the shootings of two police officers.
The French government pulled out all the stops to protect Sunday’s vote as the attack deepened France’s political divide.
“Nothing must hamper this democratic moment, essential for our country,” Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said after a high-level meeting Friday that reviewed the government’s already heightened security plans for the two-round vote that begins Sunday.
“Barbarity and cowardice struck Paris last night,” the prime minister said, appealing for national unity and for people “not to succumb to fear.”
Investigators believe at this stage that the gunman, 39-year-old Frenchman Karim Cheurfi, was alone in killing a police officer and wounding two others and a German tourist on Thursday night, less than 72 hours before the polls open, a French official who discussed details of the investigation with the AP said on condition of anonymity.
The official and another, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cheurfi was detained toward the end of February after speaking threateningly about police but was then released for lack of evidence.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack unusually quickly in a statement that sowed confusion by apparently misidentifying the gunman.
Police shot and killed Cheurfi after he opened fire on a police van on Paris’ most famous boulevard. Investigators found a pump-action shotgun and knives in his car. Cheurfi’s identity was confirmed from his fingerprints.
One of the key questions was how the attack might impact French voters.
The risk for the main presidential candidates is misjudging the public mood by making an ill-perceived gesture or comment. With polling so close, and campaigning banned starting Friday at midnight, they would have no time to recover before voters cast ballots.
The two top finishers Sunday advance to a winner-takes-all presidential runoff on May 7. Two of the main candidates, conservative Francois Fillon and centrist Emmanuel Macron, cancelled planned campaign stops Friday.
The attack brought back the recurrent campaign theme of France’s fight against Islamic extremism, one of the mainstays of the anti-immigration platform of far-right leader Marine Le Pen and also, to a lesser extent, of Fillon, a former prime minister. In the wake of the assault, they redoubled appeals for a firmer hand against Islamic extremism and promised get-tough measures if elected.
Le Pen, speaking at her campaign headquarters, urged the outgoing Socialist government to immediately re-establish border controls. Cazeneuve, the Socialist prime minister, accused the National Front leader of seeking to make political hay from the assault.
After Le Pen spoke scathingly Friday of the government’s fight against extremism, Cazeneuve said Le Pen’s party in 2014 voted against an anti-terrorism law and, in 2015, against a law that beefed up resources for French intelligence services.
He said: “She seems to be deliberately forgetting everything that has been done over five years to make people forget that she opposed everything, without ever proposing anything serious or credible.”
Fillon separately pledged to maintain the state of emergency that has been in place since IS-claimed gun and bomb attacks killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015.
“The fight for the French people’s freedom and security will be mine. This must be the priority,” he said.