Last night, an Islamic terrorist opened fire with an assault rifle on a police van on the Champs Élysées in Paris, killing one policeman and wounding two others before he was shot dead. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack and according to the French newspaper, Le Parisien, the gunman was a 39-year-old called Karim C, also known as Abu-Yusuf al-Baljiki, who in 2003 had been sentenced to twenty years in prison for the attempted murder of three men, two of whom were policemen.
At the same time as the police came under fire, Marine Le Pen was being interviewed on French television. Initially there were plans to hold another live debate featuring all eleven presidential candidates, but after complaints from some parties that it was too close to Sunday’s first round of voting, the format was changed to 15-minute one-to-one interviews with each candidate.
The change in format worked to Le Pen’s advantage. In the previous two debates she was outshone by the sharp mind of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but faced with two journalists, the National Front leader was more at ease. It had helped, too, that in the last week she has returned to the three core issues on which her party thrives, Islam, immigration and law and order, at a time when all have returned prominently to the front pages.
There was a brief discussion about Europe, the subject on which Le Pen has based much of her campaign, during which she said she was no longer prepared ‘to submit to the humiliations’ heaped on France by Angela Merkel. But for the bulk of her 15 minutes, Le Pen focused on Islamic extremism which, she said, ‘has been totally absent from the campaign’.
She’s right. One of the extraordinary features of the presidential campaign has been the reluctance of most candidates to discuss Islamic extremism, a reticence that dissolved on Tuesday after the arrest of two men who were believed to be plotting an attack on François Fillon. For the first time, one or two candidates realised that the threat is real, and not just some figment of the right’s imagination. In addition, on Thursday the trial began in Paris of twenty men arrested in 2012 on charges of plotting mass casualty attacks, underlining the fact that the country has been under sustained assault from Islamic extremists since Mohamed Merah slaughtered seven people in March that year.
Yet to listen to most of the candidates in recent months, one wouldn’t know it. Even on Thursday night, Emmanuel Macron couldn’t bring himself to utter the word ‘Islamic’ until the 14th minute of his interview, and then it was in the context of what has been happening in Syria. The centrist candidate, whose interview occurred after news had broken of the attack on the Champs Élysées, began by offering his condolences to the dead policeman, but he spent most of his time discussing education, tax and whether there is such a thing as French culture. Not really, concluded Macron, who said the richness of France lies in its diversity.
Fillon was the last of the eleven to be interviewed, and the conservative candidate began by declaring that the ‘nation is in solidarity with the police’. Explaining that the fight against Islamic terrorism was for him ‘an absolute priority’, Fillon sought to draw a distinction between himself and Le Pen by broadening the threat posed by the Islamists. ‘This danger is spreading everywhere, from Pakistan to West Africa’, he said. ‘We have to accept alliances with the Russians, the Iranians, all those who are ready to eradicate as quickly as possible these movements, not just the Islamic State but also Boko Haram, the Taliban. We must eradicate the fundamentalism inside the Muslim religion’.
Thursday evening’s interviews ended with the eleven candidates allotted two and a half minutes each to make a final statement. Macron vowed to ‘protect’ the French people, although again he was vague about from what. While Le Pen, given the opportunity to respond for the first time to the breaking news, was more direct in her final message. ‘I had thought to talk of globalisation’, she said. ‘And then I learned that the nightmare had resumed. Yet again’. It wasn’t enough, she said, to keep offering words of comfort after each fresh attack. The police required the means to combat the Islamic terrorism threat, but if elected president she would go further. ‘We must get to the root of this evil’, she said. ‘It’s the end of laxity and naivety. We can’t leave this country powerless and unable to defend itself. It’s up to you, the French, you must demand and decide’.
How this latest terrorist incident will influence voters will be determined on Sunday. But Macron, who according to one poll taken before Thursday night has increased his lead over Le Pen, has most to lose given his unwillingness to discuss the grave threat posed to his country by Islamic extremism. His campaign brochure, which dropped through my door last month, runs to thirty pages and mentions Islamic extremism just once.
Yet just hours before the attack, his En Marche! campaign team was in jubilant mood. They had received the support of Dominique de Villepin, who served as Jacques Chirac’s prime minister from 2005 to 2007, and their leader had also fielded a call from Barack Obama, something of a coup in their eyes. Then again, they should perhaps remember the outcome last year after Obama had thrown his support behind David Cameron in the EU referendum.