French candidates pledge to fight terror in cliffhanger election

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PARIS — France’s presidential candidates stressed their commitment to fight terrorism after the killing of a policeman on the Champs-Elysees in Paris threatened to shift voter sentiment in the final stages of the cliffhanger race.

A day after a terrorist shooting left one policeman dead on the landmark avenue, three of the four main candidates canceled campaign plans and made declarations on tackling terror.

Nationalist Marine Le Pen called for border controls and the arrest of anyone suspected of terror activities. Republican nominee Francois Fillon pledged to handle the threat with an “iron fist” and centrist Emmanuel Macron said he was “ready” to lead France in the face of attacks. With polls finely balanced, the politicians then went silent, leaving voters with their final words.

The race between the four main candidates is so tight ahead of Sunday’s vote that a marginal opinion change, provoked by the Paris attack, could thwart the predicted success of front-runners Le Pen and Macron, who are narrowly ahead of Fillon and Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon.

“It is very hard to say if it will have an impact on French people’s votes — they have integrated the terrorism factor in their thinking,” said Adelaide Zulfikarpasic, a pollster at BVA. “If it did, it would mostly benefit Fillon, who’s the most audible on security and defense issues and is seen as the most reassuring candidate on these topics. For Le Pen it will reassure her base, but this may not help her gain any new voters.”

From Friday midnight, candidates and pollsters will go silent for what France’s election law calls a “period of reflection” until voting ends at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Thursday’s attack, which was claimed by Islamic State, was carried out by a man who got out of a car that pulled up next to a police van on the Champs Elysees and opened fire on officers inside and outside the vehicle. The assailant was shot dead as he tried to escape. The shooting took place while the candidates were appearing on a television interview show.

The latest OpinionWay daily survey, which was only partly polled after the attack, showed first-round support for Fillon up one point to 21 percent, Le Pen and Macron stable at 22 and 23 percent respectively, while Melenchon was down one point at 19 percent.

The results may be so close that campaign officials for Le Pen and Fillon evoked the possibility that it may not be clear which of the two candidates qualifies for the May 7 runoff alongside front-runner Macron when early results come in.

“It’s possible that there will be three names at 8 p.m. on Sunday and that the two who qualify will be clear only later,” Fillon’s campaign chief of staff Vincent Chriqui said in an interview. “I think three of the four leading candidates have a chance of making it through the first round. I don’t think Melenchon will get through.” He was echoing remarks by Le Pen’s aide Wallerand de Saint Just.

For Douglas Webber, a professor of political science at INSEAD business school, “the shooting could have an impact on the undecided.” Waverers still represent 31 percent of the voters, Ipsos said in a Friday poll. “It makes it more likely that Le Pen will qualify and means a slightly better chance that Fillon could qualify too,” Webber said.

Surveys show Le Pen would eventually lose to any rival in the runoff. A late surge in support for Melenchon has pushed French bond yields close to a four-year high. Melenchon would lose to Macron, but would beat Fillon in the runoff, polls show.

Socialist Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve stepped into the campaign, accusing both Le Pen and Fillon of exploiting the Paris shooting. He took a swipe at Le Pen for systematically linking immigration and terrorism, and said Fillon’s promise to recruit more police was not credible as he had destroyed police and army jobs when he was President Nicolas Sarkozy’s prime minister.

Le Pen “is revealing her true objective — as she does after every tragedy, the National Front candidate tries to take advantage, to manipulate and to divide,” Cazeneuve said in a televised statement. “She seeks to shamelessly exploit, without fear or emotion, exclusively for party-political ends.”

Still, the element of fear can’t be underestimated in the voters’ decision, said Simon Tilford, deputy-director at the London-based Center for European Reform.

“Of all the candidates, Le Pen is the one most likely to benefit,” he said. “The fear is this will heighten concern about Islamic terrorism and enable Le Pen to tap into fears over migration and refugees.”

U.S. President Donald Trump predicted in a tweet Friday that the attack in Paris “will have a big effect” on the election, without naming which candidates he believed would benefit. “The people of France will not take much more of this,” he said.

Macron, credited with the biggest chance of qualifying after Sunday’s vote, sought to reassure voters who still see him as too inexperienced to guarantee security to the French. He warned against “giving in to exaggeration.”

“The first job of the president is to protect the French,” he said. “I’m ready, I’ll be relentless in protecting you.”

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