PARIS — A man previously suspected by authorities for having radical Islamist views was fatally shot early Saturday at Orly airport after struggling to steal a soldier’s gun and earlier assaulting a police officer at a traffic stop in a northeastern Paris suburb, French officials said.
Following the traffic stop where he slightly wounded the officer, the man proceeded to hijack a woman’s car at gunpoint in another nearby suburb, Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux said. The man continued to Orly, where he attempted to grab an assault rifle from a security officer on duty. The stolen car was recovered near the airport, French authorities said.
French President François Hollande said authorities would investigate whether the attacker “had a terrorist plot behind him,” but the Paris prosecutors’ office had already announced that its anti-terrorism section had taken over the investigation.
Prosecutors did not release the man’s identity, but they confirmed that he was 39 years old and had a criminal record of nine separate instances of drug and robbery offenses. Although he had not previously appeared in certain government terrorist watch lists, prosecutors said Saturday afternoon that the man had been on the government’s radar for Islamist extremism in the past.
In November 2015, prosecutors said, following the deadly Islamic State-orchestrated attacks on Paris, the man’s home had been among those French authorities had searched in connection with an investigation into radicalized networks.
The man’s father and brother had also been detained, the Associated Press said.
After the attacks in the suburbs early Saturday, the man, about 8:30 a.m., confronted a patrol of three heavily armed officers in the airport’s south terminal, wrestling a female officer to the ground to grab her FAMAS assault rifle.
Initial reports said the man was able to assume control of the firearm, but French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian later said the security officer managed to keep hold of the rifle. Two other officers then opened fire to “protect her” and nearby travelers, fatally wounding the man, Le Drian said.
No other injuries were reported.
Witnesses at Orly described rapid gunfire in a bustling terminal full of weekend travelers.
“We had queued up to check in for the Tel Aviv flight when we heard three or four shots nearby,” one traveler, Franck Lecam, told Agence France-Presse.
“The soldiers took aim at the man, who in turn pointed the gun he had seized at the two soldiers,” another witness, identified only as Dominique, said on France’s BFM television.
“The man managed to seize the weapon of a Sentinel soldier,” said Pierre-Henry Brandet, the spokesman for France’s Interior Ministry, referring to an elite squadron of French security forces established in 2015 to combat terrorism.
Devised after the attack on the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper in January 2015, Operation Sentinel is a special force that includes nearly 10,000 soldiers, about half of whom patrol in the Paris region, mostly at tourist destinations and commuter hubs.
A police operation was ongoing at Orly, France’s National Police confirmed on Twitter. Air traffic into Orly, the second-busiest airport in France, was temporarily shut down, with incoming flights directed to nearby Charles de Gaulle Airport, France’s Civil Aviation Authority said.
About 3,000 passengers were evacuated from the south terminal, and passengers in Orly’s west terminal were confined, Brandet said.
Shortly after noon, the police search ended and passengers from 13 flights stranded on the airport tarmac were able to disembark, authorities said.
The Saturday incident mirrored a shooting Feb. 3, when an Egyptian man attacked Sentinel soldiers outside the Louvre museum and was then seriously wounded.
France has been under an official state of emergency since November 2015, when a cell of Islamic State militants carried out attacks on a concert hall, a stadium and a number of cafes across Paris. One hundred thirty people were killed.
Hollande’s Socialist government has struggled to stave off a steady stream of attacks that have continued despite heightened security precautions, including the launch of Operation Sentinel and a number of home seizures that critics say violated civil liberties.
For instance, despite the imposition of the official state of emergency, in July, a lone driver, allegedly inspired by the Islamic State, plowed through crowds in the seaside city of Nice who had gathered to celebrate a national holiday, killing 86.
A number of smaller-scale attacks have taken place since, including the July slaying of an 85-year-old village priest, when two attackers backing the Islamic State — one of whom had been on a government watch list — slit the priest’s throat in the middle of a Mass.
The country is on edge heading into presidential elections in late April and early May, in which issues of national security and immigration have been central talking points from candidates across the spectrum. Hollande, whose historic unpopularity prevented him from standing for reelection later this spring, has been constantly criticized for perceived incompetence on security issues.
Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant leader of France’s far-right National Front who is leading the polls in advance of the first round of the presidential vote, wasted no time in blaming Saturday’s incident on the incumbent administration.
“France [is] overwhelmed by violence, the consequence of the laxity of successive governments,” she said on Twitter. “But there is the courage of our soldiers!”
By contrast, Le Pen’s leading opponent for the presidency, Emmanuel Macron, a popular centrist candidate, gave a speech Saturday in Paris on the issue of defense, praising in his remarks the “calm, control and professionalism” of the officers at Orly.
Hollande, in a statement, reiterated France’s commitment “to act without respite to fight terrorism, defend our compatriots’ security and ensure the protection of the territory.”