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Will latest Paris terror attack sway an unpredictable French election?

April 21, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
France goes to the polls Sunday in the country's first round of voting for its next president, amid tension over another deadly attack in Paris. Polls show independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron with a slight edge over right-wing, anti-immigrant candidate Marine LePen. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant examines the field of candidates and what’s at stake.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: France is on edge ahead of Sunday’s presidential election, after last night’s attack in Paris.

The vote, which features an array of candidates, is the first of two rounds. Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron appears in the polls to hold a slight edge over Marine Le Pen. She is the leader of the far right-wing anti-immigrant National Front, and is hoping for a Trump-style win to upend the traditional establishment.

The top two vote-getters will compete in the second and final round on May 7.

From Paris, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Heavily armed police were patrolling the Champs Elysees this morning in a high-profile show of force. Others carried flowers to honor a fallen colleague, providing a stark contrast on the opposite side of the grandest of Parisian boulevards.

At the place where the officer was killed, union official Denis Jacob had this message.

DENIS JACOB, French police union (through interpreter): Society mustn’t fall into a mass psychosis. People shouldn’t be paranoid that someone can come behind their back and kill them.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This shooting is the latest in a series of terrorist attacks in France over the past couple of years. It began with the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, and then, on November the 13th, with the shootings at the Bataclan music club and across Paris, and then in July last year in Nice, when there was the truck massacre.

The death toll over the past couple of years is around the 230 mark. There may only have been a handful of casualties last night, but the timing of this shooting could not have been more significant.

Political analyst Jean-Yves Camus doesn’t believe the attack will drastically impact the outcome of Sunday’s vote, but has this proviso:

JEAN-YVES CAMUS, Political Analyst: If there’s going to be a benefit, certainly, Marine Le Pen will benefit from the fact that this was a jihadi attack, that, apparently, what we know this morning, the guy came from Belgium or was a Belgian citizen. So, she will say, I want to bring back borders.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Immigration control is Marine Le Pen’s signature message. She has sanitized the party in recent years to broaden its mainstream appeal. She replaced her nationalist father as leader, expelled him from the party for his racist and anti-Semitic statements, and she watered down the Front’s extreme right-wing tendencies.

MARINE LE PEN, National Front Presidential Candidate (through interpreter): I’m telling you that what’s at stake on Sunday, and I have repeated it tirelessly over the campaign because I believe it. It is civilization. On Sunday, the choice is simple: either a France reborn, or a France that founders. I’m telling you that I intend to protect you.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But as this brief protest demonstrates, Marine Le Pen’s detractors regard her as the most divisive of political leaders. They abhor her attempts to wrap herself in the flag.

MARINE LE PEN (through interpreter): I love France. I love it from the bottom of my heart, from the bottom of my soul. I am a woman, and, as such, I feel with extreme violence all the restrictions of our freedom that we’re seeing within our country because of the developing Islamic fundamentalism.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Mikael Sala is on Le Pen’s campaign team.

MIKAEL SALA, Le Pen Campaign Staffer: Donald Trump was saying, we’re going to make America great again, and we’re going to make America grow again. Well, this is exactly what Marine Le Pen will do for France. She will make it great again. And the French, they really aspire to that. They want France to be great again, and they feel in their gut that Marine Le Pen is that person.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The potential impact of Le Pen’s policies would be felt most keenly in Barbes, a Parisian district dominated by immigrants. France has nine million people living beneath the poverty line, and this market represents a snapshot.

Habiba Belhout, a Muslim, supports the Socialist candidate who’s trailing in fifth place. She is concerned by Le Pen’s rhetoric.

HABIBA BELHOUT (through interpreter): Well, she’s a racist, first of all. It really gives the impression that we’re going decades back, back to 1939 to 1945. She talks about the Muslims, about immigration, when there’s so much more. more problems than that to deal with.

And, yesterday, I heard her say she was the only woman candidate who defends women. Well, I’m sorry, but she doesn’t represent me at all.

MALCOLM BRABANT: According to opinion polls, the current front-runner is Emmanuel Macron, who abandoned the Socialists and set up his own independent party called On the Move, to attract those who yearn for a moderate middle-ground candidate.

EMILIE GRAZIANI, Macron Supporter: The main contestants in this election are either the far right or the far left. And I think that’s not what we want in France. We don’t want a racist, nor a communist president for France. And I think there are solutions other than extreme solutions for the country. I’m pro-European and I’m for progressive solutions for my country.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Macron is a 39-year-old former investment banker, and reputedly a millionaire. As a former economy minister in the Socialist government, he’s promising to simultaneously reduce unemployment, while removing 120,000 civil servants.

EMMANUEL MACRON, On The Move Candidate (through interpreter): In France, in this wounded country, in this weary country, we don’t want tomorrow to be like yesterday. And I’m making a commitment before you here this afternoon. You, who are the living part of France, the beating heart of France, we will give France back its optimism, its faith in the future.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello.

EMMANUEL MACRON: Hello, Mr. President. How are you?

MALCOLM BRABANT: And Macron got an unusual boost yesterday before the attack: a call from former President Barack Obama, which Macron quickly tweeted out.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The main message I have is to wish you all the best in the coming days.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Former conservative Prime Minister Francois Fillon could be forgiven for looking enviously at Macron’s poll numbers. Fillon was once regarded as the favorite to become president, but his popularity slumped after he was placed under investigation for misuse of public funds.

But analysts believe the shooting might help him make a comeback. In France, there are normally two presidential election rounds. The two leading candidates from the first round contest the second.

For teacher Veronique Dadou, her main concern is the future of her students, which is why she has turned to the hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has had an unexpected surge in popularity.

VERONIQUE DADOU (through interpreter): The one thing that blocks everything else is unemployment, and that has a direct impact on the young people, because they’re the ones who are prevented from accessing a decent, proper social life. Their personal development, everything’s on hold for them because of that.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But this Melenchon rally earlier in the week was overshadowed by news that the security services had arrested two Islamists in Marseille who were allegedly planning an attack on one of the campaigns.

JEAN-LUC MELENCHON, Hard-left Presidential Candidate (through interpreter): We are not afraid, and, even tonight, we are demonstrating this. Let’s have even more debate, respectful debate, but debate nonetheless, to show that nothing will conquer our democracy, and that criminals can do nothing against it. The French people are free.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The Le Pen camp plays up similarities with the Trump campaign, but according to analyst Jean-Yves Camus, Americans should be wary.

JEAN-YVES CAMUS: The impact for the United States will be bad, because Marine Le Pen belongs to those kind of radical right parties which are highly prejudiced against the United States. This is because she doesn’t want the United States to have a prominent say in international affairs. She wants to opt out of NATO. She wants to end free trade.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Sunday’s first round is considered to be the most unpredictable election in decades. A third of all voters are said to be undecided.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Paris.

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