French President Francois Hollande speaks with policemen at Paris police headquarters the day after a policeman was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting incident on the Champs Elysees Avenue in Paris, France. Picture: REUTERS
French President Francois Hollande speaks with policemen at Paris police headquarters the day after a policeman was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting incident on the Champs Elysees Avenue in Paris, France. Picture: REUTERS

Paris — The murder of a policeman on the Champs-Elysées has forced an early end to campaigning for the leading candidates in France’s presidential election as they head into Sunday’s first-round of voting with the race wide open.

Republican François Fillon, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron, and socialist Benoît Hamon all canceled events planned for Friday. Communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon said he wouldn’t cede to "panic" and will continue with his plans for the day. No campaigning is allowed on Saturday.

Mélenchon and Fillon head into the first round hoping to snatch a place in the May 7 run-off from front-runners Le Pen and Macron after polls tightened during the last weeks.

Thursday evening’s attack, which left one policeman dead and two others injured, could change the dynamic of the race once more, according to Bruno Jeanbart, head of political studies at pollster OpinionWay.

"I think this election is sufficiently unstable that it could still move things," Jeanbart said. "Marine Le Pen is notably one to watch."

The attack, which was claimed by Islamic State and saw the assailant shot and killed as he tried to escape, took place while the candidates were on a TV interview show. Their impromptu reactions highlighted the stark differences between them.

Le Pen reiterated her calls for border controls and a crackdown on radical Islam. Macron said her plan to pull out of the Europe’s open-border scheme was "nonsense" and he’d improve intelligence with a centralised anti-terror force. Fillon wanted greater co-operation with Russia and Iran and Mélenchon said the best answer was to continue with the campaign and show France won’t give into violence.

Swipe at Le Pen

Without naming her, on Friday prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve took a swipe at Le Pen’s anti-European positions. After an emergency meeting of key cabinet members, he cited messages of support from across Europe and said "being united is the best way to combat terrorism". He called on the French not to cede to "fear, manipulation, division".

Voters head to the polls under emergency laws introduced in November 2015 after gunmen killed 130 people in attacks around Paris, and security concerns have been a major theme of the campaign.

Le Pen topped the polls for the first round during much of the race with her pledges to cut immigration and defend French culture — while also aiming to take France out of the euro.

Investor concerns about a rupture of the currency union have been tempered by surveys showing she would eventually lose to either Macron or Fillon in the run-off. But a late surge in support for Mélenchon has altered those calculations, pushing French bond yields close to a four-year high.

"This election is incredibly tight," said Dominique Reynié, a professor of political science at Sciences Po institute in Paris. "Whatever happens, we are in for profound political change."

No ‘vassal’

Mélenchon says he doesn’t want to pull France out of the euro or the EU, though, like Le Pen, he wants to overhaul EU treaties and impose political constraints on the European Central Bank — and is threatening to walk away if he doesn’t get what he wants.

"Europe — we’ll change it or leave it," Mélenchon said late on Thursday on France 2 TV, adding that he wants France to be a partner of the EU and Germany, not a "vassal".

Mélenchon remains in fourth position with 18.5% support, according to Bloomberg’s composite of polls. This compares with 19.5% for Fillon, 22.5% for Le Pen and 24% for Macron. But it’s his momentum that is striking. It raises the prospect, albeit still unlikely, of two anti-EU candidates making it into the run-off.

What’s more, Mélenchon’s plans to limit executive pay and restrict companies’ dividends may be encouraging some conservatives to swallow their objection to the financial scandals surrounding Fillon.

Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London, says facing either Fillon or Mélenchon would give Le Pen her best chance of victory. If Mélenchon did contest the presidency with Le Pen, investors may favour the nationalist.

Frederic Leroux, global fund manager at Carmignac Gestion, speaking at a briefing in Paris on Thursday, said, "Both Le Pen and Mélenchon represent a risk for markets, but Mélenchon would be more disruptive for the French economy than Le Pen."

Bloomberg

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