Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Terror attack may sway French election

The debate was dominated by corruption, extremist left and right-wing policies and fake news, but with the murder of a policeman, terrorism is back on the election agenda.
campaign posters of French presidential election candidates in Bailleul, northern France, on April 21, 2017, two days before the first round of the election.  Philippe Huguen / AFP
campaign posters of French presidential election candidates in Bailleul, northern France, on April 21, 2017, two days before the first round of the election. Philippe Huguen / AFP

Until the final few days of the run-up to Sunday’s first round of the French presidential election, terrorism had barely figured as a polarising issue.

But that changed dramatically as candidates reacted to Thursday night’s killing of a police office on the Champs-Elysees in Paris and the arrests in Marseilles two days earlier of two men suspected of planning an attack on the campaign.

Previously, allegations of corruption, extremist left and right-wing policies and fake news — along with the candidates’ competing programmes — had dominated debate.

But this week’s major security alerts have again focused attention on France’s response to the constant threat of terrorism.

The country remains under the state of emergency declared by the socialist president Francois Hollande after the massacres in Paris on the night of November 13 2015.

The latest attack led the far-right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen to return to her theme of decrying what she calls a weak government approach to the threat.

Ms Le Pen called for the expulsion of those listed as “Fiche S”, a French intelligence file of dangerous individuals.

“For 10 years, under governments of right and left, we have been doing all we can to lose the war [on terrorism],” she said. France was targeted “not for what it does but for what it is”.

Ms Le Pen wants all foreigners suspected of Islamist radicalism to be deported immediately, while steps to strip those with dual nationality of French citizenship should be accelerated to allow their removal, too — demands which on Friday led prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve to accuse her of seeking to exploit public fear.

Mr Fillon warned that France’s state of emergency, in place since the Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed on November 13 2015, would have to continue for some time.

But he promised to tackle extremism with an “iron hand” if elected.

“We are engaged in a long-term war,” he said. “The enemy is powerful, its resources are numerous and its accomplices live among us, by our side.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, the far-left fringe candidate Philippe Poutou blamed French politics for the Paris attack on police. France bore its share of responsibility by discriminating against people living in poor suburbs because of “their skin colour or origins,” taking military action in Africa and the Middle East and selling arms to dictatorships, he said.

Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate who led Ms Le Pen in the final opinion polls allowed under French law before voting begins, cancelled two meetings “out of decency”.

He also pledged to rise to the security challenges of the presidency and accused those responsible for such attacks of wanting ”death, symbolism, to sow panic, to disrupt the democratic process”.

Mr Hollande, who also cancelled engagements, said his government and security forces would show “absolute vigilance” in protecting the elections.

If the opinion polls are accurate, Sunday’s poll could lead to any two of the four leading candidates, ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right, qualifying for the May 7 decider.

With only six points separating the front-runners, no candidate seems capable of winning an outright majority making a second round unnecessary.

But the outcome could still be swayed by the 30-40 per cent of eligible electors estimated to be undecided or intending to abstaining.

In the final survey before further polling was forbidden for the last few days of the first-round campaign, Mr Macron — a former socialist minister now drawing support from left, right and centre — was ahead on 25 per cent, three points ahead of Ms Le Pen.

Three points behind her, on 19 per cent, Mr Fillon was tied with Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is significantly to the left of the outgoing Mr Hollande and his socialist party.

Although the mainstream socialists have held the presidency since Mr Hollande’s 2012 victory, and also have a majority in parliament, their official candidate Benoit Hamon has been reduced to a fringe contender by the rise of Mr Macron and Mr Melenchon and the party’s deep divisions.

Away from security issues, many in France seem unconvinced that any candidate has credible remedies for unemployment, low purchasing power and national debt.

Until he was accused of paying his British wife Penelope and two of their five children more than €900,000 (Dh3.5m) from public funds for little or no work as assistants, Mr Fillon was the clear favourite.

The couple are now both under formal criminal investigation. Many prominent natural supporters deserted the Fillon camp in disgust at his refusal to stand down. But he has recovered some lost ground and remains outwardly confident.

Before slipping behind Mr Macron in the final polls, Ms Le Pen seemed certain to reach the run-off and the last surveys still put her in second place. Her hard line on security will do her no harm after this week’s events.

All forecasts suggest she would be beaten by whoever stood against her in the run-off, even if her rival was Mr Melenchon, whose anti-establishment rhetoric has rallied many socialist voters disenchanted by Mr Hollande’s unpopular presidency.

Updated: April 21, 2017 04:00 AM

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