Police thwart terror attack on candidate for French election
Terrorism burst into the final week of the French presidential campaign after an "imminent" plot to attack a candidate was foiled, two men arrested and guns and explosives seized - reportedly thanks to a tip-off from British intelligence.
With five days to go before the first round of the most unpredictable presidential race in modern French history, agents and anti-terror police seized two suspects, Clement Baur (23) and Mahiedine Merabet (29), in Marseille, southern France.
The pair, one from Croix in northern France, the other from the Val d'Oise near Paris, were arrested a few minutes apart in the 3rd arrondissement of the port city.
A black Isil flag, several weapons - including an Uzi submachine gun - and three kilogrammes of TATP-type explosives used in the Paris and Brussels suicide bombings were found in a subsequent raid, said Francis Molins, the Paris prosecutor. Some of the bomb material was "ready for use", he added.
President François Hollande hailed the arrests as a "remarkable haul".
Matthias Fekl, the French interior minister, said the two French nationals were "suspected of wanting to launch an imminent violent act on the eve of the presidential elections".
He added: "They intended to commit an attack in the very short term, namely in the coming days, on French soil."
Mr Molins said the two men appeared to have turned to radical Islam during a two-month spell sharing a cell in a northern French prison.
Describing them as "wary and determined", he said police were unsure about "the precise day" of the planned strike and of "the target or targets".
But according to 'Le Monde', a video police seized of one suspect shows him standing before an Isil flag holding a machine gun and a copy of a daily newspaper with François Fillon, the conservative presidential candidate, on the cover, with the words "la loi du talion (an eye for an eye)" on the screen.
Mr Fillon's team was warned late last week of a "confirmed risk" of attack and shown a photo of the two suspects, said French media.
'Le Figaro' cited a source close to Mr Fillon as saying: "The initial intelligence came from British services who are thought to have intercepted data from two individuals known to security services."
The centre-right contender held rallies in Montpellier last Friday and on Monday in Nice, the scene of a deadly Isil truck attack that killed 86 last July. Anti-terror police and snipers were present at the rallies.
According to Francetvinfo, authorities advised Mr Fillon to wear a bullet-proof vest in Nice, which he refused. He is being guarded by 12 officers and has a direct line to the prime minister for security updates, it said.
But Mr Fillon was not the only candidate informed of a threat. The security teams of Marine Le Pen, the far-right Front National candidate, and Emmanuel Macron, the centrist frontrunner, were shown police photos of the two suspects last Thursday. Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate, was also informed.
Ms Le Pen is due to hold what may be her last campaign rally in Marseille tonight. "Perhaps it was no coincidence," said a member of her team.
With France going to the polls to choose a new president on Sunday and on May 7, more than 50,000 police, gendarmes and soldiers are being deployed for each round, in particular around the country's 67,000 polling stations.
After the arrests, Mr Fillon said: "Democracy must not bend before the threats and intimidation of terrorists", adding that he hoped that security would not now dominate the electoral debate.
The French were more concerned about unemployment and general insecurity rather than a "miscellaneous news item", he insisted.
But Ms Le Pen, who has this week called for France to suspend all legal immigration and draft in army reservists to guard French borders, seized on the arrests as proof France required a more authoritarian leader.
"The French must realise what's going on. For the past two five-year [presidential] terms, the Islamist threat has been allowed to prosper" leading to a "devastating multiplication of attacks and threats of attacks", she claimed.
"It's time to put back France in order."
The presidential race is narrowing ahead of Sunday's vote, with the pack closing behind Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen.
They are tied on 22-23pc, with Mr Fillon improving to around 21pc and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the surprise Communist-backed contender, surging as high as 20pc in some polls.
The country has been under a state of emergency, which has been extended several times, in the face of Islamist militant attacks in Paris and other parts of the country in which more than 230 people have been killed.
The last two attacks targeted soldiers in the Louvre museum in Paris and Orly airport outside the French capital.
Five terror plots have been foiled since the start of the year and 17 were thwarted in 2016, Bernard Cazeneuve, the French prime minister, said last month.