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France arrests over ‘pre-election attack plot’

France remains under a state of emergency after a series of attacks that have claimed some 230 lives

Five days before the first round of France’s presidential election, two men have been arrested on suspicion of planning an imminent attack.

The suspects, aged 23 and 29, were detained in Marseille by elite police and domestic intelligence agents after a search that had lasted several days.

Both men are French citizens said to have been radicalised in prison.

France remains under a state of emergency after a series of attacks that have claimed some 230 lives.

Three of the leading candidates in the presidential election – Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen and François Fillon – had been warned of security risks linked to the two men, party officials said.

They were named as Mahiedine M, 29, from Croix near the Belgian border, and Clément B, aged 23 from Ermont, north of Paris.

Police said the two men were known Islamist radicals.

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‘Terrorist’ inquiry
Interior Minister Matthias Fekl did not say what the suspects’ target was.

“They had the aim of committing in the very short term, in other words in the very next days, an attack on French soil,” he said.

The DGSI domestic intelligence service is said to suspect the pair of plotting an attack to coincide with the election. The men were being held as part of an inquiry into “criminal terrorist association and violating the law on arms relating to a terrorist enterprise”.

With France approaching the climax of the election campaign, the arrests became a major political development on Tuesday.

It has emerged that centre-right candidate François Fillon was warned of “confirmed risks” late last week, with the focus said to be an Easter rally in Nice.

A Fillon spokesman told French media that since Thursday “the security detail was reinforced around him during his travels”.

Photos of the two suspects were also circulated last week to security officers looking after the two election front-runners: centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Mr Macron called for unity and said the arrests were a reminder of the “strong terrorist threat” facing France.

Ms Le Pen has accused the government of failing to tackle militant Islamists and her adviser, Florian Philippot, said on French TV that “our democracy itself, our voting operation and electoral campaigns are under threat”.

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Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, himself riding high in the opinion polls, sent text messages of support to Mr Fillon and Mr Macron offering his “complete solidarity”.

‘Remarkable capture’
Eleven candidates will contest the first round on 23 April, with the top two qualifying for the run-off on 7 May.

The interior minister said 50,000 members of the security forces were being deployed for the elections, particularly at polling stations.

President François Hollande praised the Marseille operation, which began after 10:00 (08:00 GMT), as a “remarkable capture”.

Although no major attack has been carried out on French soil in recent months, two soldiers were attacked with machetes outside the Louvre museum in Paris in February. In the same month, three men and a 16-year-old girl were detained in Montpellier on suspicion of planning a bomb attack.

France has been under a state of emergency since the Paris attacks in November 2015 and officials say the risk is still very high, pointing to recent murders in the UK and Sweden.

On 22 March, Khalid Masood killed five people in London when he drove into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and stabbed PC Keith Palmer outside Parliament.

On 7 April, Rakhmat Akilov, 39, drove a lorry into a Stockholm department store, leaving four people dead.

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