by Gregory Viscusi, Mark Deen, and Helene Fouquet
Paris’s best-known avenue, the Champs Elysees, was shut after a police officer was killed and two others injured in a shooting late Thursday that the government is treating as a terrorist attack.
The assailant was shot dead. The Islamic State is claiming responsibility for the attack, its news agency Amaq said. It identified the attacker as Abu Yussuf al-Baljiki, suggesting he’s from Belgium — details not confirmed by the French authorities.
“The indications that we have right now suggest a terrorist link,” President Francois Hollande said in a televised statement after meeting his justice and interior ministers. “We are on absolute vigilance, above all because of the elections.” The government’s inner cabinet will meet at 8:00 a.m. on Friday, he said.
The attack came three days before the first round of one of the most tightly contested presidential elections in the country, and at a time when France is still under emergency rule following a wave of terrorist attacks in the past two years. Candidates Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon canceled rallies Friday.
Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said his office has opened a terrorist probe. Investigators are looking for accomplices to the lone attacker, Molins said at the site of the attack. He plans to hold a full press conference Friday.
On Tuesday, French authorities arrested two men in the southern city of Marseille for planning an attack during the presidential race, underscoring the fear of terrorism that has been an issue throughout the campaign. As events were unfolding in the heart of the capital on Thursday, all 11 presidential candidates were being interviewed on state television.
Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate that polls show has the best chance of being France’s next president, said on France2 television that “the first duty of a president is to protect; this imponderable threat will be with us in coming years.”
Nationalist Le Pen, whom Macron is most likely to face in the May 7 runoff, was interviewed before news of the shooting broke and later posted on Twitter that she feels “shock and solidarity with our police forces.”
Fillon of the The Republicans party said “the fight against terrorism must be the absolute priority of the next president,” and called for more cooperation with Russia and Iran. The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon said “No panic, let’s not interrupt our democratic process to show that the violent ones will not have the last word.”
The incident could have an impact on the outcome of the first round of the election, said Bruno Jeanbart, head of political studies at pollster OpinionWay.
“I think this election is sufficiently unstable that it could still move things,” he said. “Marine Le Pen is notably one to watch.”
France has been under a state of emergency since November 2015, when gunmen killed 130 people in attacks on a concert hall and other sites in Paris. The upcoming election will be the first since 1965 — when the current voting system was put in place — to be held under emergency laws.
Thursday night’s attacker got out of a car that pulled up next to a police van on the Champs Elysees and opened fired on officers inside and standing by the vehicle, Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told reporters at a police barrier on the avenue. The assailant then took off on foot and was shot dead. Hollande said a passer-by was also hit.
Paris prosecutor Molins declined to disclose the identify of the attacker since a probe is ongoing.
BFM TV said the attacker was known to the police and Agence France-Presse said police were searching a residence in suburban Paris. The assailant was born in 1977 in Livry-Gargan, a eastern suburb of Paris, and had been jailed for several years after attempting to kill a policeman while in custody, BFM reported, citing unnamed sources.
Most of the Champs Elysees, just blocks away from the presidential palace, was closed off, three metro stations were shut, and police were telling people to avoid the area.