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Security dominates French election after shooting

PARIS The killing of a policeman by a suspected Islamist militant pushed national security to the top of the French political agenda on Friday, two days before the presidential election, with leading candidates clashing over how to keep citizens safe.

With the first round of voting in the two-stage election to take place on Sunday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, an anti-EU politician who wants to ditch the euro, seized on the Paris shooting to push her policies on national security.

Le Pen – narrowly trailing frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in opinion polls – said she would take steps to beat “Islamist terrorism” if elected, including introducing tougher immigration and border controls.

Macron, a former economy minister in the government that Le Pen has criticised repeatedly for its security record, said the solutions were not as simple as she suggested . The centrist candidate, a political novice compared with his opponents, said there “no such thing as zero risk” and anyone who said otherwise was irresponsible.

There are four leading candidates in a race that is still too close to call . Sunday’s round of voting will be followed by a second-round runoff on May 7 between the top two candidates.

Macron is in the lead with 24 percent of the first-round vote, ahead of Le Pen who had fallen back slightly to 21.5 percent, according to an Elabe survey of voter intentions taken before the shooting.

Conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister, and the far left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon were snapping at their heels with 20 and 19.5 percent respectively.

The attack on Thursday night on the Champs Elysees boulevard added a new source of unpredictability to a closely contested election that will decide the management of France’s 2.2 trillion euro economy, which vies with Britain for the rank of fifth largest in the world.

The outcome could also have a bearing on France’s place in Europe and the world . Should Le Pen win, it could deal a hammer blow to the European Union, which is still reeling from Britain’s decision to leave the bloc.

All the candidates are seeking to woo the high proportion of people that are undecided about who to vote for – 31 percent according to an Ipsos poll on Friday.

Fillon also seized on the attack, which was claimed by Islamic State, saying the fight against “Islamist totalitarianism” should be the priority of the next president. “It’s us or them,” he said.

TRUMP TWEET

Financial markets though shrugged off the latest twist in the presidential campaign with French bond yields hitting a three-month low on Friday.

The Champs Elysees shooting is the latest in a series of attacks by Islamist militants on France in recent years in which more than 200 people have been killed . A truck ploughed into people in Nice on Bastille Day last year killing more than 80 people while coordinated attacks across Paris including the Bataclan concert hall claimed about 130 lives in November 2015 . There have also been attacks on a Jewish school, a satirical weekly and a kosher market.

U.S . President Donald Trump said on Twitter that the shooting would influence the French election.

“Another terrorist attack in Paris . The people of France will not take much more of this . Will have a big effect on presidential election!” he said.

However previous attacks that have taken place soon before elections, including the November 2015 attacks in Paris ahead of regional polls and the shooting in a Jewish school before the 2012 presidentials, did not appear to change the course of those ballots in favour of those espousing tougher national security.

An assault on a soldier in February at the Paris Louvre museum by a man wielding a machete also had no obvious impact on this year’s opinion polls, which have consistently said that voters see unemployment and trustworthiness of politicians as bigger issues.

SECURITY FORCES ON ALERT

A French policeman was shot dead and two others were wounded in Thursday night’s attack in central Paris.

After an emergency meeting of security officials, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said security forces, including elite units, were on alert to back up the 50,000 police earmarked to ensure citizens’ safety during the election.

“The government is fully mobilised . Nothing must be allowed to impede the fundamental democratic process of our country,” Cazeneuve told reporters. “It falls to us not to give in to fear and intimidation and manipulation which would play into the hands of the enemy.”

Controls on immigration and national security are cornerstones of Le Pen’s National Front agenda and on Friday she said she would reinstate border checks and expel foreigners who are on watch lists of intelligence services.

Macron was quick to respond to his rival’s comments.

“I’ve heard Madame Le Pen saying again recently that with her in charge, certain attacks would have been avoided,” he said on RTL Radio. “There’s no such thing as zero risk . Anyone who pretends (otherwise) is both irresponsible and deceitful.”

TIGHT RACE

In the Elabe poll, which was conducted on Wednesday and Thursday, both Fillon and Melenchon were seen narrowing Macron and Le Pen’s lead over them.

Should Macron and Le Pen make it to the second round, the former economy minister was projected to win the runoff – and thus the presidency – with 65 percent against 35 percent for Le Pen, the survey for BFM TV and L’Express magazine showed.

Fillon, who has slowly clawed back some ground lost after being hit by a fake jobs scandal, saw his score in the first round rise half a percentage point to 20 percent.

Melenchon, who would hike taxes on the rich and spend 100 billion euros ($107 billion) of borrowed money on vast housebuilding and renewable energy projects, gained 1.5 points to 19.5 percent as he built further on momentum he has seen after strong performances in television debates.

If Melenchon makes it to the runoff, he is projected to beat both Le Pen and Fillon by comfortable margins although he is seen losing to Macron 41 percent to 59 percent.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Ingrid Melander, Laurence Frost, Bate Felix, Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Pravin Char)

Chapo extradition seen boosting US-Mexico security relations under Trump

MEXICO CITY Irrespective of whether Mexico’s decision to extradite drug kingpin Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman aimed to honour outgoing U.S . President Barack Obama or appease his successor, Donald Trump, law enforcement from both countries say it bodes well for security cooperation.

Guzman, the feared boss of the Sinaloa cartel who shot to international stardom after two jailbreaks, was extradited from a prison in northern Mexico to New York on Thursday, the eve of Trump’s inauguration.

While some Mexican government officials believed Guzman’s removal served as a valediction for Obama’s presidency, others saw it as an opening gambit in what are likely to be fraught trade negotiations with a seemingly unfriendly Trump administration.

But current and former law enforcement officials on both sides of the border said the move would boost security cooperation and could even upgrade relations.

“What happened today is something that’s a victory for both Mexico and the United States,” said Leo Silva, who worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey until 2015. “This will obviously improve things.”

According to a senior U.S . law enforcement official based in Mexico, both U.S . and Mexican security forces were already “three steps ahead” in identifying the next Chapo.

“From the Mexico side, they work with us a lot, a lot more than people think,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak with press. “They think they’re going to get more support from us, they’re on line and I really don’t see a huge change . If anything, an improvement.”

ROCKY HISTORY

Security cooperation has not always run smoothly, and Mexico, with its proud, nationalist leanings, has often chafed at what it views as U.S . intrusion in its affairs.

Silva said after Vicente Fox became president in 2000, Mexico gave less access to U.S . law enforcement . However, Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, was more willing to accept U.S . help, and Silva said he could even pick up the phone and call then-Attorney General Marisela Morales.

The election of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Pena Nieto in 2012 represented a fresh set-back, with U.S . officials initially kept at arm’s length and a new attorney general appointed, Jesus Murillo Karam, who Silva called “standoffish.”

Nonetheless, after a rocky start, relations soon warmed and U.S . intelligence, particularly the U.S . Marshals who track fugitives, became a key component in many of the high-profile busts that have taken place under Pena Nieto.

“It’s similar to what we were doing and receiving under Calderon, except that this current administration doesn’t talk about it or publicize that they’re working together,” said one former DEA agent who worked on Mexican cases.

After the victory of Trump, who has threatened to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement, slap tariffs on U.S . firms manufacturing in Mexico and deport millions of illegal immigrants, some speculated years of hard-won security cooperation would fray as Mexico sought to show it wouldn’t be pushed around by the brash New Yorker.

But behind the bluster, law enforcement officials from both countries said that was unlikely to happen, and that the situation could even improve if Trump, a law-and-order Republican who has repeatedly voiced his support for police and soldiers, focussed more on combating Mexican cartels.

“The crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” Trump said during his inauguration speech on Friday. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

A Mexican anti-corruption official swatted away the notion that Mexico could shut out the United States on security issues.

“The government is going to continue the policy that it has always had of combating organised crime,” he said.

CARROT OR STICK?

Vito Guardino, who worked for the DEA for 30 years, said the U.S . government used extradition as a yardstick to measure other countries’ willingness to cooperate.

But if the United States didn’t get what it wanted, he said, it found ways of forcing other nations to play ball, a reality unlikely to be lost on Mexico, which is heavily reliant on U.S . trade.

For example, Guardino said that when Colombia stopped extraditing drug traffickers to the United States in the late 1980s, the U.S . government used a carrot-and-stick approach, threatening sanctions while drawing up the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia.

By that metric, Chapo’s removal represents a calculated show of faith on the part of Mexico, which has also signalled to Trump’s team it is open to reinforcing the northern border to curb drug smuggling and illegal migration.

The high-stakes political tensions were, however, only one way of looking at things, Guardino and many others said . Relationships with foreign law enforcement officials often take years to build and rely on trust in dangerous circumstances.

(Editing by Simon Gardner and James Dalgleish)

Palestinian tries to stab Israeli security guard, shot dead

An Israeli security guard shot and killed a Palestinian who tried to stab him at a busy checkpoint in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, Israeli police said.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the Palestinian was brandishing a knife and approached the guard on foot in the vehicle lane of the Qalandiya checkpoint . The guard was not hurt, she said.

The Palestinian Health Ministry confirmed the man was dead.

At least 228 Palestinians have been killed in violence in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip since October 2015 . Israel says at least 154 of them were assailants in a wave of lone attacks often targeting security forces and using rudimentary weapons including kitchen knives . Others died during clashes and protests.

The street assaults killed at least 33 Israelis and two visiting Americans over the same period.

Israel says one of the main causes of the violence is incitement by the Palestinian leadership, with young men encouraged to attack Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Families say assailants acted out of desperation, frustrated by the lack of progress towards peace and Israel’s continued building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for their own state.

Palestinians accused Israeli police and soldiers of using excessive force in many cases, saying many assailants could have been stopped or detained without being killed . In several cases, Israel has opened investigations.

Israel has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem for nearly 50 years, since the 1967 Middle East war, and maintains tight restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in some areas, especially checkpoints that border Israel.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)