France is once again picking up the pieces after another terrorist attack shocked the country — this one just days before polls open for the first round of its presidential election. Late April 20, a man opened fire against policemen on the Champs Elysees in downtown Paris, leaving one policeman dead and two others seriously wounded. The assailant, a 39-year-old French national who lived in a town east of Paris, was shot dead by police. Hours later, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. French police are reportedly searching for a possible accomplice who is believed to have arrived in the country from Belgium shortly before the shootings. Earlier in the week, two men were arrested in Marseille on suspicion of planning an attack ahead of the vote.
The incident happened as the 11 presidential candidates were participating in the final TV debate before the April 23 election. Three of the main candidates, nationalist Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron and conservative Francois Fillon, said they would suspend their campaign events scheduled for April 21. Other candidates, including left-wing Jean-Luc Melenchon, pledged to continue on as normal as a show of defiance against terrorism. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on April 21 that the elections would not be suspended because of the attack. He also announced that more than 50,000 policemen and gendarmes and 7,000 soldiers will be mobilized to ensure the security of the vote.
Prior to the attack, opinion polls showed a tight race developing between Le Pen, Macron, Fillon and Melenchon. According to the polls, around one in three voters remains undecided, making the result of Sunday's election impossible to predict. The two top candidates will qualify for the runoff election on May 7, and at this point any combination among the four leading candidates appears possible. National security and defense have been central topics during the race, magnified by the series of attacks suffered by France over the past two and a half years. Terrorism was a particularly prominent issue for the Le Pen and Fillon campaigns.
Le Pen draws a direct connection between immigration and terrorism, pledging to close France's borders and dramatically reduce immigration. Fillon, meanwhile, has promised to provide more resources to France's security forces and to enhance cooperation with key international players, including Russia
, in the fight against international terrorism. Both candidates have accused their centrist and left-wing rivals of lacking a coherent plan to protect French citizens.
Thus, the April 20 attack could help Le Pen and Fillon win over undecided voters, but its effect on the race should not be overestimated, as voters will also have other issues in mind when making their decision — particularly the candidates' starkly differing views on fiscal and labor reforms, public spending, trade policy, and France's role in the European Union
. But if nothing else, the shootings have once again put terrorism at the forefront of media narratives about the election, which tends to benefit France's center-right and right wing candidates.