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The terror attack in France, explained in 400 words

Terrorist Shootings Put Paris On Pre- Election High Alert
A bullet hole on the Champs-Élysées.
(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Three days before the first round of French presidential elections, a terrorist struck Paris.

Late on Thursday, a French national named Karim Cheurfi exited his car on the Champs-Élysées and opened fire on a police van using an automatic weapon — killing one officer, Xavier Jugelé. Afterward, officers engaged Cheurfi in a shootout, in which two officers were wounded and Cheurfi was killed.

Cheurfi was a disturbed man. In 2005, he was convicted on three counts of attempted murder; France 24 reports that two of the targets were police officers. More recently, police had been watching him as a potential terrorism suspect. After the attack, French President François Hollande said in a statement that it was “of a terrorist nature." ISIS claimed responsibility through its official propaganda outlet Amaq News very quickly afterward, suggesting they may have known it was coming in advance.

“What is of note is speed of claim,” Rukmini Callimachi, a reporter at the New York Times who watches ISIS propaganda closely, tweeted. “They typically take up to 12 hours. They claimed this attack in circa 2.5.”

A second man, who claimed to be Cheurfi’s partner, turned himself in to police in Belgium on Friday.

The key open question: will this sway the election?

The French election is completely up in the air right now. Four candidates — conservative François Fillon, far-right Marine Le Pen, center-left Emmanuel Macron, and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon — are neck and neck in the polls. While the numbers suggest that Macron and Le Pen are likely to win the highest totals on Sunday, leading to a runoff between the two of them in May, it’s the closest any first-round election in France has been in recent memory.

The question is whether this kind of dramatic event, so soon before the election, will sway anyone’s vote.

Two of the candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, have taken hard lines on issues of Islam, immigration, and minority rights. Macron, on the other hand, has run on a platform of tolerance and inclusiveness. Will an ISIS-claimed attack hurt him and lead to a right-wing backlash?

There’s some social science research suggesting terrorist attacks do typically help right-wing parties, most notably in Israel. But it’s very hard to say how well this applies to the French case — and it’s not clear that we’ll get any reliable polling before Sunday’s election. It’s a giant question mark hanging over an incredibly significant election.

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