April 18, 2017 11:35 am

France says it thwarted an imminent ‘terror attack’ just days before presidential vote

An Elite police officer pulls a suitcase after searches in Marseille, southern France, Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

AP Photo/Claude Paris
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PARIS – Extremism concerns shook France’s presidential campaign Tuesday as authorities announced arrests in what they said was a thwarted attack and candidates urged tougher counter-terrorism efforts for a country already under a state of emergency.

While national security previously has been a strong theme in the campaign, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen hardened her tone on foreign extremists and border controls in the wake of the arrests that came days before the first round of voting.

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Centrist Emmanuel Macron called for national unity and stronger intelligence. Le Pen and Macron are among four leading candidates seen as most likely to progress from Sunday’s first round and to reach the May 7 runoff between the top two.

As the government prepared to flood streets with more than 50,000 police and soldiers to safeguard the ballot, Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said police thwarted an imminent “terror attack,” arresting two men in the southern port city of Marseille.

Both are suspected Islamic radicals, according to the Paris prosecutors’ office, which is leading the probe. It said police seized guns and explosives of a type previously used in attacks in France and Belgium inspired by the Islamic State group.

Fekl said at a brief news conference that the two French men, one born in 1987 and the other in 1993, “intended to commit an attack on French soil in the very short term, which is to say in coming days.”

Macron’s campaign team said authorities earlier provided a photo of the suspects to his security detail.

Fekl gave no details about potential targets or motives, and it was unclear whether the attack could have targeted a campaign event.

The presidential election is being watched as a bellwether for global populist sentiment, in large part because of Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-immigration positions.

Before Tuesday’s arrests were announced, Le Pen said on RTL radio 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.

With the measures she wants to put in place, she said, the three men who carried out the January 2015 attacks against the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket never have obtained French citizenship because they had criminal records.

“Because they were delinquents, they would have been expelled from France,” 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 monitor 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 candidate Francois Fillon have pledged more robust counterterrorism efforts, but remain committed to Europe’s open borders.

France’s fight against homegrown and overseas Islamic extremism has, with jobs and the economy, been one of the main issues for the stumping presidential candidates.

Those on the right have been particularly vocal, seeking to appeal to voters traumatized by IS-inspired attacks that have killed at least 235 people in France since January 2015, by far the largest casualty rate of any Western country.

With the terror threat “higher than ever,” Fekl said “everything is being done” to secure the election, the candidates, their election headquarters and rallies.

He said more than 50,000 police, gendarmes and soldiers will be deployed in France and its overseas territories on Sunday and during the decisive May 7 second round.

Angela Charlton and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.

© 2017 The Canadian Press

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