PARIS, April 18, (Agencies): French security services on Tuesday swooped on two men accused of plotting an attack just five days before the first round of the presidential election. The men were arrested in the southern city of Marseille by agents from France’s domestic intelligence agency. Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said the attack was to be carried out in the “next few days” by the two men, aged 23 and 29, who are known to be “radicalised”. He gave no further details on the nature of the plot. More than 230 people have been killed in terror attacks in France since January 2015. Candidates have been heavily guarded during the election campaign, but so far there have been few security scares. “Everything will be done to ensure security” for the election, Fekl said. The race was narrowing ahead of Sunday’s vote, with the pack closing behind frontrunners Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, while a quarter of voters remained undecided. For weeks, centrist former banker Macron and National Front (FN) leader Le Pen have been out in front but opinion polls now show there is a very real chance that any of the four leading candidates could reach the second-round runoff on May 7. Scandal-plagued conservative Francois Fillon and far-left firebrand Jean- Luc Melenchon have closed the gap substantially in the last two weeks.
“We have never seen a four-way contest like this in the first round of a presidential election,” Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute told AFP. “There has been a real tightening of the race with four candidates between 19 percent and 23 percent,” he added. Macron and Le Pen are tied on 22-23 percent, with Fillon improving to around 21 percent and Melenchon surging as high as 20 percent in some polls. With Le Pen expected to reach the second round, polls continue to indicate that whoever faces her will win, although after Brexit and Donald Trump’s US election win, no one is taking anything for granted. Meanwhile, Le Pen sought on Tuesday to turn the debate in the final week of France’s presidential election to immigration as she looked to reverse a dip in polls. Speaking to a rally in Paris on Monday she vowed to suspend all immigration with an immediate moratorium, shield voters from globalisation and strengthen security, subjects that have won her core backing and that she hopes can give her boost with about 30 percent of voters still undecided.
“For several weeks, we will need to assess the situation. The reality is that immigration is massive in our country and that migration flood that we are experiencing is not a fantasy,” Le Pen told RTL radio on Tuesday — fleshing out details of the moratorium announcement.
The measure has not been part of her programme, although she has put on record that she wants to limit annual immigration to just 10,000 people a year. “I will carry out this moratorium for the exact purpose of implementing this 10,000 figure,” she said. Until now, Le Pen has struggled to entice her opponents in the presidential race to debate her party’s trademark tough security and immigration stance. She, by contrast, has been put on the defensive over her position on leaving the euro zone, a proposal that lacks wide support. High noon on Sunday will bring the first hard sign of just how close France’s presidential race really is with the release of early turnout figures for the first round eight hours before expected results.
With indecision also a major factor, polls show the race is so tight between the top four candidates that each has a chance of making the two-person run-off vote — therefore presenting no fewer than six second round scenarios. Reuters research into past elections shows that the lower the firstround turnout, the greater the uncertainty about which two candidates will contest that run-off on May 7. Investors are poring over the arithmetic of past votes for clues about the likelihood of an unexpected result this time. Judging from history, turnout will be the key variable. In past elections, the higher the abstention rate in the first round of voting, the lower the hurdle candidates had to clear in order to qualify.
French bond yields have risen in recent months and equity investors have massively hedged positions in the options market to reduce exposure to the risk of a market-unsettling surprise vote. The Interior Ministry was to publish a first turnout estimate at midday (1000 GMT) on Sunday followed by an update at 5:00 PM, three hours before the last polling stations close at 8:00 PM. “This (closeness) creates a risk of surprise because it substantially lowers the vote required to make it to the second round,” Swiss fund managers Unigestion, with 23 billion euros ($24.5 billion) under management, said in a research note. In French presidential elections since 1965, the lowest scoring of the two candidates to qualify for the runoffs has had a vote of 25 percent on average. However, Le Pen’s father Jean- Marie, when he was head of the party she took over in 2011, qualified in 2002 with only 16.9 percent of the vote – a record low qualification level on a record abstention rate of 28 percent, proving polls at the time embarrassingly wrong.