The news on Tuesday that French security services have prevented another attack by Islamic extremists should come as no surprise given the proximity of the election. Nor should the fact that according to police sources the intended target was François Fillon. When police raided the apartments in Marseille of the two suspects, they reportedly discovered a submachine gun, two handguns, three kilograms of TATP explosives, which was used in the 2015 suicide attacks in Paris, and a newspaper photograph of Fillon.
The Islamists loathe the conservative candidate, more than they do Marine Le Pen, despite the fact that she leads the National Front, a long-time foe of conservative Islam. When she launched her presidential campaign at the beginning of February, Le Pen told delegates in her address that Islamic fundamentalism was the ‘enemy of France’, and she promised that ‘the places of Islamic preaching will be closed and the propagators of hate will be condemned and expelled.’
Fillon, who has made much of his Catholicism during his campaigning, has vowed to do something similar if elected, but unlike Pen, he recognises that the rise of what he calls Islamic totalitarianism is a menace that needs to be confronted globally and not just in France. Fillon is a more experienced, influential and respected politician internationally than Le Pen, and if he is elected president he has said he will lead an international coalition to tackle Islamic extremism in all its forms.
Romain Caillet, an expert on Middle East politics, told Le Figaro on Wednesday that it’s not just Fillon’s anti-Sunni rhetoric that makes him a target for Islamic State but the fact he ‘is also the candidate who defends most vigorously the Christians in the Middle East’. The National Front leader, in contrast, has said she has no wish to interfere in Middle Eastern politics and she has also attacked Fillon’s references to his religion, describing it as ‘contrary to our [French] values’.
Fillon suffers from no such insularity. In the book he wrote last year, Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism, he said that in the first six months of 2016 Islamic terrorists carried out 550 attacks around the world, resulting in the deaths of more than 4,000 people. ‘If we don’t halt this infernal situation now, then we will be plunged into a third world war,’ he wrote in his conclusion. ‘This perilous situation requires courage, determination but also calm and force of character to not give in to provocation.’
Fillon has proved true to his word. While the police have increased security around him and the other ten presidential candidates, the centre-right candidate has declined the offer of a bullet-proof vest. Nor does he intend to alter his schedule between now and the first round of voting on Sunday. The dismantlement of the terrorist cell, he said, ‘will change absolutely nothing in the organisation of the campaign.’