France on edge on eve of election

By Sylvie Corbet, Lori Hinnant

France began picking itself up yesterday from another shooting claimed by Isis (Islamic State), with President Francois Hollande calling together the Government's security council and his would-be successors in the presidential election campaign treading carefully before voting tomorrow.

One of the key questions was if, and how, the attack on the Champs Elysees avenue that killed one police officer and wounded three other people might impact voting intentions.

The risk for the main candidates was that misjudging the public mood, making an ill-perceived gesture or comment, could damage their chances.

With polling just two days away, and campaigning banned from Friday at midnight local time, they would have no time to recover before polls open tomorrow. Candidates cancelled or rescheduled final campaign events ahead of the first-round vote in the two-stage election.

But the threat still remained, with Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet saying police were hunting a second suspect in connection with the fatal shooting.

Speaking on Europe 1 radio, Brandet said a second man had been identified by Belgian security officials and flagged to French authorities.

Meanwhile, on the iconic avenue in the heart of Paris, municipal workers in white hygiene suits were out before dawn to wash down the sidewalk where the assault took place - a scene now depressingly familiar after multiple attacks that have killed more than 230 people in France in little over two years. Delivery trucks did their early morning rounds; everything would have seemed normal were it not for the row of TV trucks parked up along the boulevard that is a must-visit for tourists.

Hollande's defence and security council meeting was part of government efforts to protect tomorrow's vote, taking place under already heightened security, with more than 50,000 police and soldiers mobilised, and a state of emergency in place since 2015.

The attacker emerged from a car and used an automatic weapon to shoot at officers outside a department store at the centre of the Champs-Elysees, anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins said.

Police shot and killed the gunman. One officer was killed and two seriously wounded. A female foreign tourist also was wounded.

Isis' claim of responsibility just a few hours after the attack came unusually swiftly for the extremist group, which has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria.

In a statement from its Amaq news agency, the group gave a pseudonym for the shooter, Abu Yusuf al-Beljiki, indicating he was Belgian or had lived in Belgium. Belgian authorities said they had no information about the suspect.

Investigators searched a home yesterday in an eastern suburb of Paris believed linked to the attack. A police document obtained by the Associated Press identifies the address searched in the town of Chelles as the family home of Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old with a criminal record.

Police tape surrounded the quiet, middle-class neighbourhood and worried neighbours expressed surprise at the searches.

Archive reports by French newspaper Le Parisien say that Cheurfi was convicted of attacking a police officer in 2001.

Authorities were trying to determine whether "one or more people" might have helped the attacker, In Brandet said.

The attacker had been flagged as an extremist, according to two police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorised to publicly discuss the investigation.

The gunfire sent scores of tourists fleeing into side streets.

"They were running, running," said 55-year-old Badi Ftaiti, who lives in the area. "Some were crying. There were tens, maybe even hundreds of them."

The assault recalled two recent attacks on soldiers providing security at prominent locations around Paris: one at the Louvre museum in February and one at Orly airport last month.

A French television station hosting an event with the 11 candidates running for president briefly interrupted its broadcast to report the shootings.

Conservative contender Francois Fillon, who has campaigned against "Islamic totalitarianism", said on France 2 television that he was cancelling his planned campaign stops for the day.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who campaigns against immigration and Islamic fundamentalism, took to Twitter to offer her sympathy for law enforcement officers "once again targeted".

She used the attack as the latest evidence in her call for France to intensify its fight against "Islamist terrorism".

She cancelled a minor campaign stop, but scheduled another.

Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron offered his thoughts to the family of the dead officer.

He was also quick to argue against any fear-mongering.

"We must not yield to fear today," he said. "This is what our assailants are waiting for, and it's their trap."

Socialist Benoit Hamon tweeted his "full support" to police against terrorism.

The two top finishers in Sunday's election will advance to a runoff on May 7.

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