France arrests over ‘plot attack’
The suspects, aged 23 and 29 year, were detained in Marseille by elite police and domestic intelligence agents after a search that had lasted several days.
France remains under a state of emergency after a series of attacks that have claimed some 230 lives.
A flat in the rue de Crimée in Marseille’s central third district was being searched, amid reports that heavy weapons and several packages of primed explosives had been discovered. Neither man was from Marseille.
They were named as Mahiedine M, 29, from Croix near the Belgian border, and Clément B, aged 23 from Ermont, north of Paris.
Interior Minister Matthias Fekl did not say what the suspects’ aim was. He described the men as French.
“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 plaining 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 emerged that one of the main election candidates, François Fillon, was warned of “confirmed risks” last week. A Fillon spokesman told French media that since Thursday “the security detail was reinforced around him during his travels”. The main focus was said to be an Easter rally held by the centre-right candidate in Nice on Monday.
Photos of the suspects were distributed among security officers looking after election front-runners Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.
The far-right leader, Ms Le Pen, has long 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”.
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”
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 as a “remarkable capture”, which began after 10:00 (08:00 GMT).
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 danger 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.