Terror attack foiled
French presidential candidates call for tougher counterterrorism efforts
PARIS — Extremism concerns shook France’s presidential campaign Tuesday as authorities announced arrests in what they said was a thwarted attack and candidates urged tougher counterterrorism efforts for a country already under a state of emergency.
While national security previously has been a strong theme in the campaign, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen hardened her tone on foreign extremists and border controls in the wake of the arrests that came days before the first round of voting.
Centrist Emmanuel Macron called for national unity and stronger intelligence. Le Pen and Macron are among four leading candidates seen as most likely to progress from Sunday’s first round and to reach the May 7 runoff between the top two.
As the government prepared to flood streets with more than 50,000 police and soldiers to safeguard the ballot, Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said police thwarted an imminent “terror attack,” arresting two men in the southern port city of Marseille.
Both are suspected Islamic radicals, according to the Paris prosecutors’ office. It said police seized guns and explosives of a type previously used in attacks in France and Belgium inspired by Islamic State.
Fekl said at a brief news conference that the two French men, Mahiedine Merabet, 29 and Clement Baur, 23, “intended to commit an attack on French soil in the very short term, which is to say in coming days.”
Macron’s campaign team said authorities earlier provided a photo of the suspects to his security detail.
Fekl gave no details about potential targets or motives.
The presidential election is being watched as a bellwether for global populist sentiment, in large part because of Le Pen’s nationalist, antiimmigration positions.
Before Tuesday’s arrests were announced, Le Pen said on RTL radio that she would expel foreign extremists and draft army reservists to close France’s borders as soon as she takes office.
“We cannot fight the terrorism that weighs on our country without controlling our borders,” Le Pen said.
With the measures she wants to put in place, she said, the three men who carried out the January 2015 attacks against the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket would never have obtained French citizenship because they had criminal records.
“Because they were delinquents, they would have been expelled from France,” Le Pen said.
Macron struck a tough, but conciliatory tone.
He called the arrests a reminder that “the terrorist threat remains very high,” especially during the election campaign, and reiterated calls for pressure on Internet companies to better monitor extremism online.
But he added that “terrorism ... is a challenge that calls upon us more than anything else to come together, because the terrorists wish nothing more than our division.”
Macron and conservative candidate Francois Fillon have pledged more robust counterterrorism efforts, but remain committed to Europe’s open borders.
France’s fight against Islamic extremism has, with jobs and the economy, been one of the main issues for the stumping presidential candidates. Those on the right have been particularly vocal, seeking to appeal to voters traumatized by Islamic State-inspired attacks that have killed at least 235 people in France.
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, left, visits the Rungis food market, south of Paris, France, on Tuesday. He said people must come together after a terror attack was thwarted with the arrest of two people.