PARIS - Extremism concerns shook France’s presidential campaign on 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.
Security has already been a strong campaign theme, and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen hardened her tone Tuesday on foreign extremists and border controls while centrist Emmanuel Macron called for national unity and stronger intelligence.
Polls show Le Pen and Macron among four leading candidates with a chance of coming out on top of Sunday’s first round and reaching the May 7 run-off, in an unpredictable vote seen as a bellwether for global populist sentiment.
With security ramped up for the campaign, French police arrested two suspected radicals Tuesday in the southern port city of Marseille and thwarted an attack planned for the coming days, “on the eve of the French presidential election,” the Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said.
He gave no details, and it is unclear whether the attack could have targeted a campaign event.
Guns and bomb-making materials were found yesterday during searches in Marseille after the suspects – “radicalised” Frenchmen aged 23 and 29 – were taken into custody, sources said.
Before the thwarted attack was announced, Le Pen said on RTL radio Tuesday 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.
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 police 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 Francois Fillon have pledged more robust counterterrorism efforts but remain committed to Europe’s open borders.
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Le Pen also said she would issue an order to freeze long-term visas for a two-week period so the government can verify, among other things, that the recipients aren’t taking jobs away from French citizens.