by Christopher Dickey · April 21, 2017
PARIS—The scene of the murder was well chosen: the most famous boulevard in Paris, the Champs-Élysées, the prestigious address of Cartier and Louis Vuitton, the Lido nightclub, even the Disney store. On a balmy Thursday night, it was mobbed with tourists shopping and strolling. But they were not the target of the man who stepped out of a car and opened fire with an automatic weapon. He was shooting at police, and shooting to kill.
In a terrifying exchange of gunfire, one policeman lost his life, two were wounded, a passer-by was wounded, and the shooter was “neutralized,” as the authorities put it. The entire area was shut down by authorities, with well-armed soldiers stationed at the top of the boulevard in front of the Arc de Triomphe, even as the lights on the Eiffel Tower twinkled in the background to mark the top of the hour. Puzzled tourists lingered outside the crime scene tape, some excitedly telling their stories on their phones’ live-streaming aps.
Tragic and horrifying as the incident was, the question that looms in the days and hours ahead is how it will affect presidential elections that could change the history of France, of Europe, and of NATO, the most important of America’s international alliances.
“It is going to be a big thing,” says Gilles Kepel, author of because the big question is how much it will boost Marine Le Pen.”
The leader of the far-right National Front, who is anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, pro-Russian, anti-American, and pro-Trump, has been the leader in the polls going into the first round of the presidential elections on Sunday, among a field of 11 candidates, with the expectation that in the run-off two weeks later her extremism would be rejected by a massive majority of the voters. But that is far from certain in the wake of a highly publicized terrorist incident.
As Kepel and others have pointed out, based on the ideological writings of jihadists such as Abu Musab al-Suri, their goal is to create violent divisions in Europe’s population, pitting Christians—“crusaders”—against Muslim immigrants and their descendants, to the point where eventually there is civil war.
In that context, from the jihadist point of view, a Le Pen victory is something devoutly to be wished. And the terrorist incident that could be the tipping point was all too easy to execute.
“The attacker arrived in a car and got out,” a police source told Le Parisien. “He opened fire on the police car with an automatic weapon and killed one of the officers.”
Officers fatally shot one gunman, who, according to law enforcement, was 39, from a suburb east of Paris, and known to intelligence services. A police source told Reuters an arrest warrant had been issued for a second suspect in the shooting who had arrived in Paris from Belgium by train, but it is not clear that the second person was at the scene of the shooting.
The so-called Islamic State claimed credit for the attack, naming the shooter as Abu Yusuf al-Beljiki.
The targeting of police officers and soldiers has become a recurrent feature of jihadist attacks in France, where just a month ago 39-year-old Ziyed Ben Belgacem was killed after holding a gun to a female soldier’s head at Orly Airport.
The attack at Orly followed an incident in February, when a machete-wielding man attacked soldiers on patrol at the Louvre before they shot him dead.
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And last July, less than a year after the terror attacks on bars and a concert hall in Paris, Larossi Abballa, who claimed allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, murdered a senior police officer and his partner in front of their 3-year-old son in Magnanville, west of Paris.
While most people in France associate terrorist Amedy Coulibaly with the horrific attack on a kosher supermarket in January 2015 shortly after the Charlie Hebdo murders, Coulibaly’s first victim was a female police officer whom he gunned down in Montrouge, south of Paris.
The latest shooting comes a day after police arrested two young men on suspicion of planning a terror attack.
They were detained in the southern port city of Marseille, where a subsequent search of an apartment yielded three kilos of explosives, several guns, and an ISIS flag.
“They were aiming to commit in the very short term, in other words in the next few days, an attack on French soil,” Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said, adding that the men were known to be “radicalized.”
Even before the Champs-Élysées attack Thursday night, the Marseille arrests had put the country on edge and heightened fears that extremists could target the election in the final days of the campaign or during Sunday’s vote.
François Fillon, the candidate for the conservative Les Républicains, said he would cancel the campaign events he had had been planning for Friday as a result of the shooting.
The Champs-Elysées remained locked down late on Thursday night and metro stations in the area were also closed. The normally vibrant thoroughfare and tourist attraction was eerily empty, save for police cars and law enforcement officials. A helicopter hovered above the avenue.