2 held in France over plot to disrupt presidential election
PARIS — Two men were arrested in southern France on Tuesday on suspicion of preparing an attack to disrupt campaigning before the first round of the country’s presidential elections, authorities said.
The target of the plot was not disclosed. The news interjected additional uncertainty into a tumultuous and dynamic race, in which the first round of voting takes place Sunday, almost a third of the electorate is still undecided and the four front-runners are clustered around 20 percent in the polls for the first ballot.
The two men, French citizens ages 23 and 29, were arrested Tuesday morning in the southern port city of Marseille, according to François Molins, a prosecutor in Paris who handles terrorism investigations nationwide.
Mr. Molins, at a news conference on Tuesday, said that evidence gathered by investigators showed that two men, identified only as Mahiedine M. and Clément B., were preparing a “violent” and “imminent” act, and that they had gathered firearms and explosives at their hideout in Marseille.
But he said investigators had not determined when or where the attack was to take place. The campaigns of several presidential candidates said Tuesday that they had been warned last week by the French authorities of a potential terrorist threat.
Marine Le Pen, the farright candidate, and Emmanuel Macron, an independent, said that their campaigns had received warnings about the two men, including their photographs. Ms. Le Pen planned a campaign rally in Marseille on Wednesday evening.
Communist-backed JeanLuc Melenchon, who sailed through the center of the capital on a barge on Monday, was addressing rallies in at least seven cities Tuesday, using holograms for six of them. Republican candidate Francois Fillon held a rally in Nice on Monday and was holding another on Tuesday in Lille.
Mr. Molins said the two men met in prison in 2015 and were known to French intelligence services for their “radicalization.”
At the apartment the two men rented in Marseille, investigators found several firearms and rounds of ammunition, as well as bomb-making material and three kilograms of explosives.
Mr. Molins said that French intelligence services “intercepted” a video last week that one of the men had been trying to transmit to the Islamic State group. It showed a submachine gun, a black IS flag and the front page of a newspaper that featured a picture of one of the candidates, who was not identified.
Since early 2015, France has experienced a series of terrorist attacks that have claimed more than 230 lives in Paris, Nice and elsewhere, and the French authorities regularly arrest people they suspect of planning attacks.
Security has been tightened at campaign rallies around the country, with multiple and thorough bag checks and pat-downs. France is still under a state of emergency that was first declared after the coordinated attacks in and around Paris in November 2015, in which 130 people died.
Over 50,000 police officers, gendarmes and soldiers will be deployed across France to secure the two rounds of voting, on Sunday and on May 7, when a runoff between the two top vote-getters will be held.
Asked if he was worried about an attack on Election Day, Interior minister Matthias Fekl told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche “no threat is ruled out,” adding that authorities had to secure 67,000 polling stations.