PARIS: Police arrested two men in Marseille on Tuesday on suspicion of planning an attack, just days before the first round of France’s presidential election, with bomb-making materials and guns found in searches.
The foiled plot sparked fears that the closing days of the campaign could be a target for extremists ahead of Sunday’s vote, the country’s most unpredictable election in decades.
Elite police and agents from France’s domestic intelligence agency detained the two Frenchmen — identified only as 23-year-old Clement B. and Mahiedine M., 29 — in the Mediterranean port city and Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said they were known to be “radicalised”. “They were aiming to commit in the very short term, in other words in the next few days, an attack on French soil,” Fekl said.
Police found guns and bomb-making materials in searches across Marseille. Later in the day, soldiers and police were still sealing off a road where one of the men was arrested.
Officials gave no indication of who the men had been targeting, but the campaign team of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen linked the arrests to her planned campaign visit to the city on Wednesday.
“The fact that the two individuals were arrested in Marseille as Marine Le Pen was preparing to hold a meeting the following day is perhaps not a coincidence,” a member of her entourage said.
Photos of the two suspects in the plot were distributed last week to the security teams for Le Pen and centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. Conservative candidate Francois Fillon was also warned about the danger last week, an aide said.
France remains under a state of emergency after being a frequent target of terror attacks by jihadists that have killed more than 230 people since January 2015.
Candidates have been heavily guarded during the election campaign, but so far there have been few security scares.
Election race narrowing
On the campaign trail, the race was narrowing ahead of Sunday’s vote, with the pack closing behind frontrunners Macron and Le Pen.
For weeks, centrist former banker Macron and National Front (FN) leader Le Pen have been out in front but opinion polls now show any of the four leading candidates could reach the second-round run-off on May 7.
Scandal-plagued Fillon and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon have closed the gap dramatically in the last two weeks.
“We have never seen a four-way contest like this in the first round of a presidential election,” said Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute. “There has been a real tightening of the race with four candidates between 19 per cent and 23 per cent.” Macron and Le Pen are tied on 22-23 per cent, with Fillon improving to around 21 per cent and Melenchon surging as high as 20 per cent in some polls.
With Le Pen expected to reach the second round, polls continue to indicate that whoever faces her will win, although after Brexit and Donald Trump’s US presidential election win, no one is taking anything for granted.
Melenchon has made the most remarkable breakthrough in recent weeks with a far-left programme that includes huge public spending and a pledge to renegotiate all European Union treaties.
Le Pen wants to pull France out of the eurozone and also foresees a mass renegotiation of EU treaties, sparking fears in Brussels that a victory for the far-right coming hot on the heels of Brexit could be fatal for the European bloc.
In contrast to Le Pen, Macron on Sunday told 20,000 people at a rally in Paris that France’s future lay firmly in Europe, albeit one that suited French interests. “We need Europe, so we will remake it,” Macron said.
Polls show that more than a quarter of voters have yet to decide who they will support.
Analysts also say there is growing evidence that a high abstention rate could affect the result, possibly tipping the scales in favour of Fillon.
“The behaviour of people who are currently planning not to vote is a major factor. If those on the right [who were going to abstain] decide to vote for Fillon, it changes things,” Ifop’s Dabi said. “It is one of the unknowns of a vote that has many unknowns.”
Fillon, a 63-year-old former prime minister, has been charged over allegations he gave his wife Penelope a fictional job as his parliamentary assistant for which she earned nearly 680,000 euros ($725,000) in public money.
Having led the polls at the turn of the year, the scandal hit his support hard. But voters now appear to be warming to his message that he is a safe pair of hands in an election of largely untested candidates.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2017