PARIS — A gunman wielding an assault rifle on Thursday night killed a police officer on Paris’s most iconic boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, stirring France’s worst fears of a terrorist attack, which could tip voting in a hotly contested presidential election that starts on Sunday.
The gunman was shot dead by the police as he tried to flee on foot; two other police officers and a bystander were wounded. The police quickly blocked access to the crowded thoroughfare, lined with restaurants and high-end stores, as a helicopter hovered overhead.
The attack set off panic and a scramble for shelter, and officers began searching for possible accomplices after the attack.
Near midnight, President François Hollande said in an address to the nation that the attack appeared to be an act of terrorism. The Islamic State claimed responsibility in a message posted on a jihadi channel, and the Paris prosecutor said he had opened a terrorism investigation.
The attack came only days before the start of a presidential vote that could reverberate across Europe, and as the 11 candidates were having their final quasi-debate on the France 2 television network.
Analysts have been saying for weeks that an attack just before the first vote, or between the first vote and the runoff on May 7, could tip the election toward a candidate perceived as tougher on crime and terrorism, especially the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who hardened her stand against Muslim immigration in the campaign’s final days, linking it to security fears, or François Fillon, who has pledged to eradicate Islamic terrorism.
“Emotion and solidarity for our forces of order, once again targets,” Ms. Le Pen said after the shooting.
The debate format was one-on-one interviews lasting 15 minutes each, followed by an almost three-minute conclusion, and the presidential candidates quickly posted on Twitter posts about the attack. Those whose interviews were still being broadcast took the opportunity to speak about their security proposals.
Mr. Hollande, who spoke from the Élysée Palace, offered an emotional tribute to the police, whom he said were the country’s first line of defense, and endeavored to reassure a nervous public.
“It has been the case for a number of months, and we will have absolute vigilance when it comes to the elections,” he said, “but everyone will understand that at this hour, my thoughts are with the family of the police who were killed and with those close to the wounded policeman.”
François Molins, the Paris prosecutor, said that shortly before 9 p.m., a car pulled up to a police vehicle that was parked in front of a Marks & Spencer store. A gunman jumped out and opened fire on the vehicle, killing an officer. The gunman then tried to flee while firing at other officers but was killed by the police.
A restaurateur near the scene of the shooting, who would only give his first name, Denis, told France 24 television by phone that people had sought refuge in his restaurant.
“They were scared. They didn’t know what to do, or when it would end,” he said. “Some of them were in shock, others were crying.”
France has been on high alert since the terrorist attacks in and around Paris in November 2015, and this presidential election will be the first to be conducted under such conditions. The authorities have been warning for months that despite the lack of any large-scale attacks, the threat has not abated.
Mr. Molins, who handles terrorism investigations nationwide, said the authorities had identified the killer, but he declined to provide the gunman’s identity because police raids and the search for potential accomplices were still underway.
European counterterrorism experts said they believed that the Islamic State’s claim was credible.
The speed with which the group claimed responsibility was “surprising,” said Peter R. Neumann, the director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London. “It seems prepared and coordinated,” Mr. Neumann added, noting that the Islamic State claim was in multiple languages, “like they knew this was going to happen.”
On Tuesday, two men were arrested in Marseille on suspicion of having imminent plans to conduct a terrorist attack. Weapons, ammunition and the highly volatile explosive TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, was found in one of the apartments used by the two men. It is the same type of explosive used in the attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November 2015 and in the attacks in Brussels in March 2016.
The response of all the candidates was to express solidarity with the police, and Mr. Fillon, who represents the mainstream right, and Ms. Le Pen said they would not campaign on Friday, out of respect for the police officers who were killed and wounded.
Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who along with Ms. Le Pen has been leading in the polls, stepped back from the moment, saying: “This imponderable threat, this threat, will be a fact of daily life in the coming years.”
President Trump, who was meeting with Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy at the White House on Thursday, responded to a question from reporters about the Paris attack. “That’s a terrible thing, and it’s a very, very terrible thing that’s going on in the world today,” he said. “But it looks like another terrorist attack. And what can you say — it just never ends.”
The French presidential candidates were not alone in using the attack to burnish their image as potential commanders in chief; the Islamic State also appeared eager to make the most of the it, preparing a statement in multiple languages and being ready to claim responsibility, said Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst who specializes in the Islamic State’s influence efforts and who is writing a book on its external operations.
“The timing of the attack itself is significant in that this will help to ensure the group is a centerpiece of political discourses in France,” Mr. Smith said. “For prospective recruits in the West and seasoned jihadis in conflict zones alike, including the Al Qaeda members that the Islamic State has sought to draw into its ranks, this can bolster perceptions of the group as a credible enterprise that is worthy of their support.”
|Officers on the top of a police vehicle on the Champs-Élysées. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Credit Christian Hartmann/Reuters|
|The police closed the Champs-Élysées on Thursday after a gunman killed a policeman and wounded two others. Credit Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images|
One dead, two wounded as Paris police come under fire on Champs-Elysees
PARIS — A gunman opened fire on French police Thursday on Paris’s best-known boulevard, killing one officer and wounding two others before being fatally shot himself in an incident that raised the specter of renewed terrorism just three days before voters go to the polls to elect a new president.
The Islamic State, through its affiliated Amaq News Agency, quickly asserted responsibility for the attack, which sent panicked pedestrians fleeing into side streets and prompted police to seal off the renowned Champs-Elysees, close metro stations and order tourists back into their hotels. The terrorist organization said the attack was carried out by a Belgian national it identified only as Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki, a pseudonym.
There was no immediate confirmation that the Islamic State was behind the shooting. French officials declined to attach a motive to the attack, although they said police were deliberately targeted and that they were opening a terrorism investigation.
The incident occurred three days before France holds the first round of a hotly contested presidential election, with candidates from across the political spectrum vying to succeed François Hollande as president. Hollande scheduled an emergency meeting late Thursday to discuss the attack.
François Fillon, one of the presidential candidates, said in a statement that the election campaign should be suspended. “We must show our solidarity with the police and the French population, which is increasingly worried,” he said. “The fight against Islamist totalitarianism must be the top priority.”
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, wasted no time in using the attack as the latest evidence in her call for France to intensify its fight against “Islamist terrorism.”
By contrast, Emmanuel Macron, the popular independent candidate vying for the presidency, was quick to argue against any fearmongering.
“We must not yield to fear today,” he said Thursday. “This is what our assailants are waiting for, and it’s their trap.”
Ahead of the first round of the vote on Sunday, Macron is leading Le Pen in the latest polls, but by only a small margin. After Thursday’s attack, both Fillon and Le Pen announced that they would cancel events planned for Friday, the last official day of campaigning.
There was no immediate information on the identities of the attacker or the policemen who were shot.
“It’s too early to say what’s behind this, but clearly police were the target,” he said. “We don’t know yet what his motivations were.” There were conflicting reports about whether another person was in the gunman’s car.
In Washington, President Trump said during a news conference with the visiting Italian prime minister that the Paris shooting “looks like another terrorist attack,” and he offered condolences to France.
“Again it’s happening, it seems,” Trump said. “I just saw it as I was walking in. . . . That’s a very, very terrible thing that’s going on in the world today. But it looks like another terrorist attack. And what can you say? It just never ends. We have to be strong and we have to be vigilant, and I’ve been saying it for a long time.”
The country has been hit by a deadly wave of terrorist violence in the past two years that has claimed the lives of at least 230 people and injured hundreds of others.
Thursday’s shooting — on the most famous boulevard in the French capital, always crowded with tourists and commuters — came just two days after authorities arrested two men in the southern city of Marseille on suspicion of plotting what Paris prosecutors described as an “imminent” and “violent” assault. Police discovered an Islamic State flag and three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of explosives in one suspect’s home.
The Islamic State has asserted responsibility for previous attacks in France, including a coordinated November 2015 terrorist assault on multiple targets in Paris that left 130 people dead and more than 360 wounded.
After that attack and others in the past two years — many perpetrated by Islamic State militants or those claiming to be inspired by the extremist group — terrorism and national security have become crucial issues in the most contentious election France has seen in decades.
Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate, has campaigned heavily on an anti-immigrant platform and what she has couched as the need to defend France from “Islamist globalization.” In the final days of the campaign, she said she would halt immigration altogether if elected president.
The shooting occurred in the middle of a televised campaign event, when each of the 11 current candidates was given 15 minutes to sell voters on their respective platforms.
Paris gunman who killed police officer known to security forces, source says
A man who killed a police officer on the Champs-Elysees Thursday night was known to French security services for radical Islamist activities and had shot and wounded an officer in the past, a source close to the investigation told CNN.
The suspect, who was shot dead by French police, was the subject of a "Fiche S" surveillance file and was on the radar of the French domestic security service DGSI, the source said.
The man was a French national who shot two officers in 2001 after being stopped by a police car, the source said. He was taken into custody but while being questioned grabbed another officer's gun and shot him three times, the source said. He was convicted in that attack and had a criminal record because of involvement in violent robberies, the source said.
The source said French investigators now believe this was in all likelihood a terrorist attack. They believe there was just one attacker, and the danger is likely over, the source said.
ISIS issued a statement saying an Islamic State "fighter" carried out the attack. The ISIS claim comes via a statement released by the group's media wing, Amaq. The ISIS statement identified the attacker and called him "the Belgian." CNN has not confirmed the attacker's association with Belgium.
Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said he will reveal the shooter's identity on Friday at a news conference. He said officers are searching the man's residence in Chelles, Seine-et-Marne, a Paris suburb, and are trying to determine if he had accomplices.
The shooting has not officially been declared a terrorist act but anti-terrorist forces are leading the investigation, French President Francois Hollande said.
"The people who were present have been evacuated and we are convinced that the leads which point us to this case, and which will allow us to uncover the truth, are of a terrorist nature," he said.
Elections on Sunday
The shooting happened about 9 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET) when a car stopped at 102 Champs-Elysees in front of a police van, Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre Henry Brandet said.
A man emerged from the car and opened fire on the van with an "automatic weapon," killing one officer instantly, he said. The man "then ran away, managing to shoot and wound two other policemen. Other policemen engaged and shot and killed the attacker," Brandet said.
The slain officer was 30 years old, Molin said. One of the wounded officers was critically injured but is improving, he said. Also wounded was a female tourist.
The shooting shut down the famed Champs-Elysees, one of Paris' top tourist attractions and home to the iconic Arc de Triomphe monument. The avenue was clear of residents and tourists but teeming with security officers Thursday night.
It comes three days before French voters start elections for a new president. Candidates went ahead with a debate Thursday night.
France has been in a state of emergency since the 2015 Paris attacks, which left 130 people dead. Parliament voted in December to extend the extraordinary provisions to ensure the protection of upcoming presidential and general elections.
Security has been tight because of the vote. Just two days ago French authorities arrested two men in Marseille who were allegedly planning an attack in a run-up to the election.
According to Christophe Crépin, a spokesman for the UNSA Police Union, the gunman opened fire on the police with an AK-47 assault rifle, targeting officers who were near a Marks and Spencer store on the corner of the busy avenue.
Police ordered people away from the area, and at least three metro stations were closed, the Interior Ministry said.
A European security official told The Washington Post that the dead attacker was known to French intelligence, having previously come to authorities’ attention because of radical Islamist links.
One French official said investigators recovered an ID card on the shooter and were awaiting the results of fingerprints.
François Molins, the Paris prosecutor who spoke at an impromptu news conference late Thursday, confirmed that “the identity of the attacker is known” and said that “investigations are underway with searches to find out whether he benefited from collaborators.”
Police were searching the home of the suspect, in Seine-et-Marne outside Paris.
The French Interior Ministry said one police officer was killed on the spot and two others were “seriously wounded” when the gunman opened fire on a police car. The ministry said security forces gunned down the attacker as he tried to flee on foot.
A spokeswoman for the Paris police, Johanna Primevert, said the gunman attacked police guarding an area near the Franklin Roosevelt metro station at 8:50 p.m. Thursday Paris time at the center of the heavily traveled Champs-Elysees.
She said the attacker appeared to act alone, but other officials said it was too soon to tell whether he might have had an accomplice.
The Reuters news agency reported that police issued an arrest warrant for a second suspect who they said had arrived in France by train from Belgium.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told France’s BFM television that the gunman got out of a car that pulled up beside a police vehicle and opened fire on the police officers.
Trump: 'What can you say?'
Paris resident Daoud Kal, 29, said he was walking in the area near a metro station when he heard four to five shots. He looked around, but couldn't identify where the shots were coming from. People panicked and ran away from the scene and he joined them.
The CNN Paris bureau is on this street and staffers reported hearing a dozen shots. At least 20 police vehicles were seen on the street.
Officers could be seen forcibly removing innocent citizens from the area as they attempted to get them to safety.
President Donald Trump, speaking at a news conference in Washington with the visiting Italian Prime Minister, offered condolences to the people of France after the shooting, saying it "looks like another terrorist attack."
"What can you say? It never ends," the President said.
The Champs-Elysees is a main road lined with restaurants, cafes, exclusive designer boutiques and tourist shops. At one end is the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by a several-lane-wide roundabout, and the other end stops at the Place de la Concorde, known for its obelisk monument.
The presidential palace, the Elysee, is a few blocks away.
French police tweeted, "Police intervention underway in the area of the #ChampsElysees avoid the sector and follow the instructions of the police forces."
French candidates respond
The US State Department put out a cautionary tweet, saying: "If you're in #Paris, monitor local news. #ChampsElysees has been closed. Authorities are telling people to avoid the area after a shooting."
The shooting comes three days before French general elections and Paris was already in a state of heightened alert. French politicians immediately reacted on social media.
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen tweeted, "My emotions and solidarity for the police, once again targeted."
Conservative French presidential hopeful Francois Fillon tweeted, "Paying homage to police who give their lives to protect ours, #ChampsElysees."
Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve tweeted: "Paying homage to the policeman killed on the champs elysees. Thoughts are with his family. Solidarity with his injured colleagues and those close to them."
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy tweeted: "To our law enforcement: support, strength, courage. They are paying again a heavy price. Our Nation's tribute must be total NS"
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted: "We won't give up, not bow and remain united facing these odious and insidious threats that weigh on our cities."
She also extended a message of solidarity and thanks to the retailers on the Champs-Elysees who gave people shelter during the attack.