France on edge on eve of presidential poll

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Paris, April 22 (IANS) France goes to the polls on Sunday with terrorist violence casting a long shadow over its fraught presidential election, after the shooting of a policeman on the Champs Élysées deepened already bitter political divisions.

According to analysts, Thursday’s attack could shake up the four-way contest between far-right leader Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron, conservative Francois Fillon and Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Candidates will be pitted against each other twice — the first round of the vote takes place on April 23. Then, the two top candidates will face each other in a second run-off on May 7, reported the Guardian.

Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the government had reviewed its extensive election security measures and was “fully mobilised” in the wake of the attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

He said more than 50,000 police and gendarmes and 7,000 soldiers would be on duty for Sunday’s first-round vote, and nothing could be allowed to “hamper this democratic moment”.

Candidates with radically opposing visions for the country’s future clashed openly over the response to the killing, claimed by the Islamic State (IS) less than 72 hours before polling stations open.

Macron accused his two closest rivals of using the killing of Xavier Jugelé, 37, and the serious wounding of two other police officers on Thursday night to score political points before Sunday’s first-round vote.

Macron said the far-right Front National (NF) leader Le Pen, with whom he is neck-and-neck in polling for the first-round vote, and Fillon — currently in third place — were engaging in one-upmanship in their response to the attack.

Hardline statements from Le Pen and Fillon spoke of a country “at war” with radical Islam, which they described as organised, expansionist, totalitarian and barbaric.

The gunman, identified by prosecutors on Friday as Karim Cheurfi, 39, had a long record of violence against police, including two attempted murders.

Shot dead as he attempted to flee the scene after firing on a police van with an automatic rifle, he was reportedly under surveillance by intelligence services but was not flagged as a potential jihadi threat.

At a televised news conference, Le Pen, 48, demanded the closure of all “Islamist” mosques in France, the expulsion of hate preachers and the reinstatement of French borders.

People on the French security services’ watch list for radicalisation should also be expelled from France and have their French citizenship revoked, she said.

However, Cazeneuve accused her of trying to capitalise on the attack.

Fillon of The Republicans party said that if elected, his foreign policy priority would be the destruction of ISIS. He also called for the creation of 10,000 more police posts.

Cazeneuve, however, questioned Fillon’s position on security, saying that when he previously served as Prime Minister he had cut thousands of security force jobs.

Macron, 39, of En Marche party appealed to voters not to succumb to fear.

“The choice that you have to make on Sunday must be a choice for the future.”

Macron said he would hire an additional 10,000 police officers in the next five years and that he would create a task force under the French Presidency to fight ISIS.

Leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, 63, urged the French people to “remain cool-headed” and “to not subject ourselves to hate, vengeance and resentment”.

Polls have suggested Le Pen and Macron are the most likely candidates to go through to the second-round runoff, but Fillon and Mélenchon are only two or three points behind, and up to 25 per cent of voters have yet to make up their minds, making the race impossible to call.

–IANS

soni/bg

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