Police had Champs Élysées gunman in their grasp
Karim Cheurfi was detained in February for threatening officers, then released, officials say
The Champs Élysées gunman who shot and killed a police officer just days before France's presidential election spent 14 years in prison, including for attacking other police officers, Frances's anti-terrorism prosecutor said Friday — a lengthy criminal history that gave a jolt to an already nail-biting election and fuelled growing security concerns.
He was convicted in 2003 of attempted homicide in the shootings of two police officers.
Yet, despite an arrest as recently as February, the 39-year-old assailant, Karim Cheurfi, had shown no signs of radicalization and was released for lack of evidence of a threat, Paris prosecutor François Molins said.
That all changed Thursday when Cheurfi, a Frenchman born in the Paris suburbs, opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle on the crowded boutique-lined boulevard synonymous with French glamour, striking a police officer with two bullets to the head and wounding two others before being shot and killed by police.
Security forces found a note praising ISIS at the scene of the attack, which apparently fell from the gunman's pocket. That along with an unusually quick claim of responsibility by ISIS were the only signs that he had entered the world of Islamic extremists, Molins said.
Scraps of paper scrawled with the addresses of police stations and a satchel of weapons, munitions and the Muslim holy book were discovered in his car.
Thursday's shootings followed the arrest this week of two men in Marseille on suspicion of plotting an attack around Sunday's hotly contested first-round presidential vote, fuelling France's worst fear: a terrorist attack as crowds gather at polling stations across the nation.
Nothing must hamper this democratic moment.— French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve
But the French government planned to pull out all the stops to protect Sunday's vote as the attack deepened France's political divide.
"Nothing must hamper this democratic moment, essential for our country," Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said after a high-level meeting Friday that reviewed the government's already heightened security plans for the two-round vote that begins Sunday.
"Barbarity and cowardice struck Paris last night," the prime minister said, appealing for national unity and for people "not to succumb to fear."
Investigators believe at this stage that the gunman was alone in killing a police officer and wounding two others and a German tourist on Thursday night, a French official who discussed details of the investigation with the AP said on condition of anonymity.
When ISIS claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack, it sowed confusion by referring to Cheurfi by a different name, Abu Yusuf Al-Beljiki, and suggesting he had ties to Belgium.
We are at war. There is no alternative — it's us or them.— Fran ç ois Fillon, presidential candidate
Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said Friday the gunman was French, not Belgian, and that the name given by ISIS "is certainly not the guy who committed the crime yesterday."
The slain officer has been identified as Xavier Jugele by an association of LGBT police officers.
The group's president, Mickael Bucheron, told The Associated Press that Jugele would have celebrated his 38th birthday at the beginning of May.
Jugele had seen first-hand the horror that could be carried out in the name of ISIS.
He was one of the officers who raced to the Bataclan concert hall the night three armed men with suicide bombs stormed a show and slaughtered 90 people on Nov. 13, 2015, part of a wave of assaults in the French capital that killed 130 people.
He returned to the concert venue a year later when it reopened with a concert by Sting. Jugele told People magazine at the time how happy he was to be "here to defend our civic values."
"It's symbolic. We're here tonight as witnesses. This concert's to celebrate life. To say no to terrorists," he said at the time.
Jugele had worked in the Paris area as a police officer since 2011. At the time of his death, he was a member of the Paris police department's public order and traffic division.
"It was one of his final missions; he was about to join another service," said Alain Parmentier, vice-president of the LGBT police association. "He was a very simple man with a big heart. A real nice guy. And he really loved his job."
Jugele had received praise from his bosses earlier this year for his courage during the evacuation of a building ravaged by an accidental blast in the western Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.
French President François Hollande said a national tribute will be paid to Jugele, who was "assassinated."
One of the key questions was how the attack might impact French voters.
The risk for the main presidential candidates is misjudging the public mood by making an ill-perceived gesture or comment. With polling so close, and campaigning banned starting Friday at midnight, they would have no time to recover before voters cast ballots.
The two top finishers Sunday advance to a winner-takes-all presidential runoff on May 7. Two of the main candidates, conservative François Fillon and centrist Emmanuel Macron, cancelled planned campaign stops Friday.
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, a former prime minister. In the wake of the assault, they redoubled appeals for a firmer hand against Islamic extremism and promised get-tough measures if elected.
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.
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After Le Pen spoke scathingly Friday of the government's fight against extremism, Cazeneuve said 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.
"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," he said.
Fillon separately pledged to maintain the state of emergency that has been in place since ISIS-claimed gun and bomb attacks killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015.
"The fight for the French people's freedom and security will be mine. This must be the priority," he said.
"We are at war. There is no alternative — it's us or them."
Voters also wondered how the latest attack might impact the election.
Elena Worms, walking her dog near the Champs Élysées, called the attack "destabilizing" and said she fears it will "push people to the extremes." She said her plans to vote Fillon remained unchanged.
"He wants to lead Muslims away from fundamentalism to security," she said.
Police search home
The two police officers injured in the attack are out of danger, Interior Ministry spokesperson Pierre-Henry Brandet said. National police spokesperson Jerome Bonet, speaking on BFM television, said there were thousands of people 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 searched a home early Friday in an eastern suburb of Paris believed linked to the attack, and police detained for questioning three of the gunman's family members — routine in such cases.
The shooting recalled two other recent attacks on soldiers providing security at prominent locations around Paris: one at the Louvre museum in February and one at Orly airport last month.
For Sunday's vote, the government is mobilizing more than 50,000 police and gendarmes to protect the 70,000 polling stations, with an additional 7,000 soldiers also on patrol.
With files from Reuters and CBC News