By AURELIEN BREEDEN
APRIL 18, 2017
Photo: French police officers cordoned off a street in Marseille, where two men said to have been “radicalized” were arrested on Tuesday. Credit Claude Paris/Associated Press
PARIS — Two men were arrested in southern France on Tuesday on suspicion of preparing an attack to disrupt campaigning ahead of the first round of the country’s presidential elections, the authorities said.
The target of the plot was not disclosed. The news injected additional uncertainty into a tumultuous and dynamic race, in which the first round of voting takes place on Sunday.
The two men, French citizens born in 1987 and 1993, were arrested Tuesday morning in the southern port city of Marseille, according to Matthias Fekl, the interior minister.
He said that the two men were “radicalized” and known to French intelligence services, and that they were “suspected of wanting to imminently commit a violent action on the eve of the French presidential election.”
Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, and Emmanuel Macron, an independent candidate, told the news agency Agence France-Presse that their campaigns had gotten warnings about the two men, including their photographs. Ms. Le Pen is planning a campaign rally in Marseille on Wednesday evening.
Several news agencies also reported that the campaign of the conservative candidate François Fillon, who on Monday evening held a rally in Nice, about 100 miles east of Marseille, had received warnings from the authorities about a potential threat.
Officials would not confirm those accounts. Mr. Fekl, who did not detail the motives or targets of the two men who were arrested, said that the Paris prosecutor’s office had opened an investigation before the arrests; the prosecutor, François Molins, was scheduled to brief journalists Tuesday evening.
Since early 2015, France has experienced a series of terrorist attacks that have claimed more than 230 lives in Paris, Nice and other places, and French authorities regularly arrest people they suspect of planning attacks.
Security has been tightened at campaign rallies around the country, with multiple and thorough bag checks and pat-downs. France is still under a state of emergency that was first declared after the coordinated attacks in and around Paris in November 2015, in which 130 people died.
Mr. Fekl said that French security forces were continuing house raids and security sweeps in connection with Tuesday’s arrests, adding that the terrorist threat was “still higher than ever.”
He also said that his ministry was “completely mobilized, more than ever,” to protect campaign rallies as well as the candidates and their headquarters.
Over 50,000 police officers, gendarmes and soldiers will be deployed across France to secure the two rounds of voting, on Sunday and on May 7, when a runoff between the two top vote-getters will be held.
News of the arrests added a layer of uncertainty to an already unpredictable race, with four candidates currently neck-and-neck in the polls for the first round. Although terrorism is a major campaign issue, so far polls have shown that voters care most about the economy and unemployment.
Asked if he was worried about an attack on Election Day, Mr. Fekl told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche on Sunday that “no threat is ruled out,” adding that the authorities had to secure 67,000 polling stations.
Caroline Morard, a spokeswoman for Mr. Fillon, confirmed in a text message that his team had known he was a potential target for a terrorist attack, but she would not say whether the campaign had been aware of a specific threat, or if it had been warned about the two men who were arrested on Tuesday.
Benoît Morenne contributed reporting.