The two face a run-off next month. AFP/EPA
French intelligence services have concluded that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out a sarin nerve gas attack on April 4 in northern Syria and that Assad or his closest entourage ordered the strike, a declassified report showed.
The attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun killed scores of people and prompted the United States to launch a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base in response, its first direct assault on the Assad government in the conflict.
The six-page document – drawn up by France’s military and foreign intelligence services and seen by said it was able to reach its conclusion based on samples they had obtained from the impact strike on the ground, and a blood sample from a victim.
Among the elements found in the samples were hexamine, a hallmark of sarin produced by the Syrian government.
“The French intelligence services consider that only Bashar al-Assad and some of his most influential entourage can give the order to use chemical weapons,” the report said.
It added that jihadist groups in the area did not have the capacity to develop and launch such an attack and that Islamic State was not in the region.
Assad’s claim to AFP news agency on April 13 that the attack was fabricated, was “not credible” given the mass flows of casualties in a short space of time arriving in Syrian and Turkish hospitals as well as the sheer quantity of online activity showing people with neurotoxic symptoms, said the report.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Callus)
Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right populist Marine Le Pen advanced Sunday to a runoff in France’s presidential election, remaking the country’s political landscape and setting up a showdown over its participation in the European Union.
French politicians on the left and right immediately urged voters to block Le Pen’s path to power in the May 7 runoff, saying her virulently nationalist anti-EU and anti-immigration politics would spell disaster for France.
“What is at stake here is the survival of France,”populist Marine Le Pen told a wildly cheering crowd after the results were announced of round one of the most unpredictable and the most high-stakes election in decades.
She was speaking in a sports hall on the edge of the town of Henin-Beaumont, a couple of hours drive north of Paris in the French “rustbelt”, where the coal mines closed long ago and the factories have moved to Eastern Europe or Asia.
“Extremism can only bring unhappiness and division to France,” defeated conservative candidate Francois Fillon said. “As such, there is no other choice than to vote against the extreme right.”
The selection of Le Pen and Macron presents voters with the starkest possible choice between two diametrically opposed visions of the EU’s future and France’s place in it. It sets up a battle between Macron’s optimistic vision of a tolerant France and a united Europe with open borders against Le Pen’s darker, inward-looking “French-first” platform that calls for closed borders, tougher security, less immigration and dropping the shared euro currency to return to the French franc.
With Le Pen wanting France to leave the EU and Macron wanting even closer cooperation among the bloc’s 28 nations, Sunday’s outcome means the May 7 runoff will have undertones of a referendum on France’s EU membership.
The absence in the runoff of candidates from either the mainstream left Socialists or the right-wing Republicans party — the two main political groups that have governed post-war France — also marked a seismic shift in French politics. Macron, a 39-year-old investment banker, made the runoff on the back of a grassroots campaign without the support of a major political party.
With 90 percent of votes counted, the Interior Ministry said Macron had nearly 24 percent, giving him a slight cushion over Le Pen’s 22 percent. Fillon, with just under 20 percent, was slightly ahead of the far-left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon, who had 19 percent.
The euro jumped 2 percent to more than $1.09 after the initial results were announced because Macron has vowed to reinforce France’s commitments to the EU and euro — and opinion polls give him a big lead heading into the second round.
While Le Pen faces the runoff as the underdog, it’s already stunning that she brought her once-taboo party so close to the Elysee Palace. She hopes to win over far-left and other voters angry at the global elite and distrustful of the untested Macron.
With a wink at his cheering, flag-waving supporters who yelled “We will win!” in his election day headquarters in Paris, Macron promised to be a president “who protects, who transforms and builds” if elected.
“You are the faces of French hope,” he said. His wife, Brigitte, joined him on stage before his speech — the only couple among the leading candidates to do so Sunday night.
Le Pen, in a chest-thumping speech to cheering supporters, declared that she embodies “the great alternative” for French voters. She portrayed her duel with Macron as a battle between “patriots” and “wild deregulation” — warning of job losses overseas, mass immigration straining resources at home and “the free circulation of terrorists.”
“The time has come to free the French people,” she said at her election day headquarters in the northern French town of Henin-Beaumont, adding that nothing short of “the survival of France” will be at stake in the presidential runoff.
Her supporters burst into a rendition of the French national anthem, chanted “We will win!” and waved French flags and blue flags with “Marine President” on them.
France is now steaming into unchartered territory, because whoever wins on May 7 cannot count on the backing of France’s political mainstream parties. Even under a constitution that concentrates power in the president’s hands, both Macron and Le Pen will need legislators in parliament to pass laws and implement much of their programs.
France’s legislative election in June now takes on a vital importance, with huge questions about whether Le Pen and even the more moderate Macron will be able to rally sufficient lawmakers to their causes.
In Paris, protesters angry at Le Pen’s advance — some from anarchist and anti-fascist groups — scuffled with police. Officers fired tear gas to disperse the rowdy crowd. Two people were injured and police detained three people as demonstrators burned cars, danced around bonfires and dodged riot police. At a peaceful protest by around 300 people at the Place de la Republique some sang “No Marine and no Macron!” and “Now burn your voting cards.”
Macron supporters at his election-day headquarters went wild as polling agency projections showed the ex-finance minister making the runoff, cheering, singing “La Marseillaise” anthem, waving French tricolor and European flags and shouting “Macron, president!”
Mathilde Jullien, 23, said she is convinced Macron will beat Le Pen.
“He represents France’s future, a future within Europe,” she said. “He will win because he is able to unite people from the right and the left against the threat of the National Front and he proposes real solutions for France’s economy.”
Fillon said he would vote for Macron on May 7 because Le Pen’s program “would bankrupt France” and throw the EU into chaos. He also cited the history of “violence and intolerance” of Le Pen’s far-right National Front party, founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was trounced in the presidential runoff in 2002.
In a defiant speech to supporters, Melenchon refused to concede defeat before the official count confirmed pollsters’ projections and did not say how he would vote in the next round.
In a brief televised message, Socialist Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve urged voters to back Macron to defeat the National Front’s “funereal project of regression for France and of division of the French.”
Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, who was far behind in Sunday’s results, quickly conceded defeat. Proclaiming that “the left is not dead,” he also urged supporters to back Macron.
Voting took place amid heightened security in the first election under France’s state of emergency, which has been in place since gun-and-bomb attacks in Paris in 2015. On Thursday, a gunman killed a police officer and wounded two others on Paris’ iconic Champs-Elysees boulevard before he was fatally shot.
Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley and Alex Turnbull in Henin-Beaumont; Chris den Hond in Le Touquet; Angela Charlton, Raphael Satter, Samuel Petrequin, Nicolas Vaux-Montagny, Sylvie Corbet, Nadine Achoui-Lesage and Philippe Sotto in Paris; and Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.
Polls show Macron should easily win this run off: (at the link below)
The 48-year-old lawyer had spent years trying to make the far-Right Front National party more mainstream, to move it away from the xenophobia and anti-semitism that had infected it since its creation in the 1970s by her firebrand father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is still central to her rhetoric, but she has managed to make the party palatable to a growing number of voters who were turned off by her often objectionable ex-paratrooper father, and who bought into her anti-elite discourse and her promises to ditch the euro and possibly take France out of the European Union.
She even banned the words “Front National” and her family name from all election campaign literature and from the stage sets for her rallies, using only the slogans “Marine Présidente” and “Au Nom du Peuple”.
Now, as she rested during the sunny afternoon after casting her vote, she knew she was about to find out if that lengthy process of “dédiabolisation” (roughly translated as de-demonisation) had paid off or not.
The sports hall on the edge of town slowly filled up with supporters carrying French tricolours and with hundreds of journalists from across the globe who had come to see if the world’s fifth richest country was possibly about to elect a far-Right president.
Seventy-three-year-old Jules Leveque, who once worked in the metal industry, said she was the only one who could pull France out of the economic doldrums, stem mass unemployment, and boost welfare payments.
Who is Marine Le Pen and the Front National party?
The centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen have won the first round of voting in French presidential elections, projected results say.
Mr Macron won 23.7%, while Ms Le Pen won 21.7%, French TV says.
The two saw off a strong challenge from centre-right François Fillon the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, according to the projections.
The pair now face a run-off vote on 7 May.
© PHILIPPE LOPEZ, AFP | People lay flowers at the site of a shooting on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on April 21, 2017, a day after a gunman opened fire on police on the avenue, killing a policeman.
The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility about two hours after the attack, which took place on Paris’s Champs-Élysées avenue. A statement published by the terrorist group’s progaganda agency identified the attacker as “Abu Yussef the Belgian”.
However, French authorities on Friday identified the attacker, who was killed in the assault, as Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old French citizen who lived in the suburbs of Paris and was known to French authorities.
The discrepancy in the reports led to speculation about who really carried out the attack. Was there a second attacker? If so, were they on the loose?
No second attacker is known
Rumours had spread on Twitter Thursday night that a Belgian man named Youssouf el Osri, who was wanted by Belgian authorities, had travelled on a Thalys train to Paris. Some Twitter users implied that he was linked to the Champs-Élysées attack. Was this the “Yussef the Belgian” that the IS group later referred to?
El Osri gave himself up at a police station in Antwerp, Belgium, Friday morning. The Belgian public prosecutor said that on Thursday evening el Osri had been in Belgium — not in Paris — and “ruled out” any link between him and the Champs-Élysées attack.
The Belgian prosecutor offered two theories. Either “there really is an ‘Abu Yussef the Belgian’ – and we are trying to identify who this is – or the IS group took advantage of the fact that the man from Antwerp was already in the news, especially in France, in order to name him when they claimed responsibility for the attack”.
Or did the IS group make a mistake? Their claim of responsibility was unusual for two reasons. Firstly, the Islamist group rarely names attackers, instead referring to them as “soldiers of IS”. Secondly, the speed with which they put out their statement was also unusual. The IS group more typically claims responsibility 12 to 48 hours after an attack.
Radicalised or not?
Did Karim Cheurfi have any other links to radical Islam? Cheurfi comes from Seine-Saint-Denis, to the northeast of Paris, and last lived in Chelles, a suburb 18 kilometres east of Paris.
He spent 14 years in prison on three counts of attempted murder, including of police officers, but “didn’t show any signs of radicalisation or proselytising”, according to Paris Prosecutor François Molins.
Reuters reported Thursday night that Cheurfi was on France’s official Fiche S watch list of those being monitored by security services, but this turned out to be false.
Cheurfi’s neighbours said that he nourished a “hatred” of the police, and that he was “suffering psychologically”. French anti-terrorism researchers knew as early as the beginning of 2016 that Cheurfi was trying to buy weapons, and that he wanted to kill police in revenge for children killed in Syria.
However, Cheurfi’s name did appear on a list of some 15,000 “radicalised” people, kept by France’s domestic intelligence agency (Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure or DGSI).
The other link between Cheurfi and the IS group is a handwritten note praising the terrorist group found next to Cheurfi’s body after he was killed by the police. But the IS group has encouraged would-be attackers to leave such notes to enable the group to claim responsibility.
Three men close to Cheurfi who are currently being held by police for questioning may provide more answers. One of the men met Cheurfi in prison and has an extensive criminal record.
This article was translated from the original in French.