Paris attack: Gunman had a history of attacking and threatening police
The gunman who shot and killed a police officer in Paris just days before France's presidential election was detained in February for threatening police but then freed, two officials said on Friday.
Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old Frenchman, was also convicted in 2003 of attempted homicide in the shootings of two police officers.
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The French government pulled out all the stops to protect the vote as the attack deepened France's political divide.
"Nothing must hamper this democratic moment, essential for our country," French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said after a high-level meeting on Friday that reviewed the government's already heightened security plans for the two-round presidential vote that begins on Sunday [Monday NZ Time].
"Barbarity and cowardice struck Paris last night," the prime minister declared, appealing for national unity and for people "not to succumb to fear".
Investigators believe at this stage that Cheurfi was alone in killing one police officer and wounding two others and a female German tourist on Thursday night [Friday NZT], a French official who discussed details of the investigation said on condition of anonymity.
ATTACK LAUNCHED FROM CAR
Police shot and killed Cheurfi after he opened fire on a police van on Paris' most famous boulevard, Champ-Elysees.
National police spokesman Jerome Bonet, speaking on BFM television, said thousands of people were out on Paris' iconic boulevard when the gunman opened fire and that the rapid response of officers who shot and killed him avoided possible "carnage".
Investigators found a pump-action shotgun and knives in Cheurfi's car, from which the attack was launched as an assailant opened fire on a police van at a red light, killing an officer inside. Cheurfi's identity was confirmed from his fingerprints.
Cheurfi had been detained near the end of February after speaking threateningly about police but was then released for lack of evidence, according to that French official and another, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorised to publicly discuss the probe.
Witness Chelloug, a kitchen assistant, said he was walking out of a shop and saw a man get out of a car and open fire with a rifle on a policeman.
"The policeman fell down. I heard six shots. I was afraid. I have a 2-year-old girl and I thought I was going to die... He shot straight at the police officer."
Investigators searched a home in an eastern suburb of Paris believed linked to the attack and detained three of Cheurfi's family members for questioning.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said police were on Friday hunting a second suspect in connection with the fatal shooting.
A Belgian man who had been linked by some as an accomplice to the terror attack turned himself in, but authorities said there was no link. Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens told VRT network early Friday that "at this moment we have no information about Belgian links."
POLICEMAN IDENTIFIED AS ISLAMIC STATE CLAIMS ATTACK
The policeman killed was identified as Xavier Jugele by Flag!, a French association of LGBT police officers. Its president, Mickael Bucheron, said the slain officer would have celebrated his 38th birthday at the beginning of May.
Jugele was among the officers who responded to the gun-and-bomb attack on Paris' Bataclan concert hall in November 2015, among a wave of assaults in the French capital that killed 130 people, he told People.com.
He was also there a year later when the venue reopened with a concert by Sting, saying how happy he was to be "here to defend our civic values".
"This concert's to celebrate life. To say 'No' to terrorists," the media outlet quoted Jugele as saying.
The two police officers injured in the attack were out of danger, French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Champ-Elysees attack in an unusually quick statement that sowed confusion by apparently misidentifying the gunman.
Municipal workers in white hygiene suits were out before dawn to wash down the sidewalk where the assault took place _ a scene now depressingly familiar after multiple attacks that have killed more than 230 people in France over two years. Delivery trucks were out on early morning rounds. Everything would have seemed normal if not for a row of TV trucks parked along the boulevard that is a must-visit for tourists.
PRESIDENTIAL VOTE IMMINENT
The attack came less than 72 hours before the polls open.
A key question was how the attack might affect French voters, since campaigning is now banned.
Inserting himself into the debate, US President Donald Trump tweeted that the attack "will have a big effect" on the election and that "the people of France will not take much more of this".
Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2017
The two top finishers in the first round of voting advance to a winner-takes-all presidential runoff on May 7. Two of the main candidates, conservative Francois Fillon and centrist Emmanuel Macron, cancelled campaign events in the wake of the shooting.
The attack brought back the recurrent campaign theme of France's fight against Islamic extremism, one of the mainstays of the anti-immigration platform of far-right leader Marine Le Pen and also, to a lesser extent, of Fillon.
Le Pen, speaking at her campaign headquarters, urged the outgoing Socialist government to immediately re-establish border controls. Cazeneuve, the Socialist prime minister, accused the National Front leader of seeking to make political hay from the assault.
After Le Pen spoke scathingly Friday of the government's fight against extremism, Cazeneuve noted that Le Pen's party in 2014 voted against an anti-terrorism law and, in 2015, against a law that beefed up resources for French intelligence services.
He said: "She seems to be deliberately forgetting everything that has been done over five years to make people forget that she opposed everything, without ever proposing anything serious or credible."
Fillon, for his part, pledged to maintain the state of emergency that has been in place since the November 2015 attacks.
"The fight for the French people's freedom and security will be mine. This must be the priority," he said.
Asked if the assault would impact voting, the centrist Macron said "no-one knows" and appealed for cool heads.
"What our attackers want is death, symbolism, to sow panic [and] to disturb a democratic process," the 39-year-old former investment banker said.
Macron said he cancelled campaign stops out of a sense of "decency" and to allow police to concentrate resources on the investigation. Said by polls to be running neck-and-neck with Le Pen, he tore into her claims that previous attacks wouldn't have happened under her watch.
"She won't be able to protect our citizens," Macron said.
Elena Worms, who was walking her dog near the Champs-Elysees, called the attack "destabilising" and said she feared it would "push people to the extremes". She said her plans to vote for Fillon, a former prime minister, remained unchanged.
The attack appeared to fit a pattern of European extremists targeting security forces and symbols of state to discredit, take vengeance on or destabilise society. It recalled two recent attacks on French soldiers providing security at prominent locations around Paris: one at the Louvre museum in February and one at Orly airport last month.
For the presidential vote, the government is mobilising more than 50,000 police and gendarmes to protect the 70,000 polling stations, with an additional 7000 soldiers also on patrol.
HOLLANDE CONVINCED IT'S TERROR
French President Francois Hollande said he was convinced the circumstances of the Paris shooting pointed to a terrorist act. Hollande scheduled an emergency meeting following the shootings.
Trump said it was a "very, very terrible thing".
"It looks like another terrorist attack. What can you say? It just never ends. We have to be strong."
- AP and Reuters