Assassination attempt on Chirac fails

Gunman fired from crowd near Arc de Triomphe before Bastille Day parade

Suspect held in psychiatric unit

Police say 25-year-old admitted that he planned to kill president, himself

July 15, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS -- A young Frenchman with neo-Nazi connections fired at least one shot at President Jacques Chirac yesterday morning as the French leader was being driven in an open jeep down the Champs-Elysees before the start of the annual Bastille Day military parade, police said. Chirac was not hurt.

The police said the man, Maxime Brunerie, 25, who was wrestled to the ground by spectators before he was arrested, admitted planning to assassinate Chirac and then commit suicide. Brunerie, a student and part-time chauffeur who lives in the Paris suburbs, was "known to belong to neo-Nazi and hooligan movements," including a far-right student group, the police said.

Witnesses said Brunerie was standing in the crowd near the Arc de Triomphe when Chirac passed by in a jeep, standing and waving to the public. Brunerie then took a .22-caliber hunting rifle from a brown guitar case and fired at least one shot in the direction of the president.

A senior government official later estimated that Brunerie was about 450 feet from Chirac.

After Brunerie fired the gun, spectators knocked him to the ground, trying to prevent him from firing again. A soldier on duty at the parade then jumped over a barricade and helped pin down Brunerie until the police arrived. Officers handcuffed him and drove him away in a police van. Video images captured by a spectator showed a stocky short-haired man wearing a dark sweater with a hood.

"Chirac was going by in his car when I felt the crowd moving to my right," said Mohamed Chelali, a tourist visiting from Canada. "Then I saw, two or three meters [about seven to 10 feet] away, a man aiming in the direction of the president. Someone hit the gunman's hand, and I grabbed a part of the weapon and some metal bit fell off. A third person kept it pointed upwards."

Another witness, a photographer, said he heard two shots fired, but that has not been confirmed by police. However, what sounded like two shots could be heard on a broadcast of the parade as Chirac's jeep headed down the Champs-Elysees.

This is the first known attempt on the life of a French president since the early 1960s, when President Charles de Gaulle was the target of several assassination attempts organized by opponents of his plan to grant independence to Algeria, which was then a French colony. On two occasions, de Gaulle was attacked in his car, once with a bomb, the other with gunfire. The last French president to be killed in office was Paul Doumer, who was shot in 1932 by a Russian emigre.

Yesterday's incident did not disrupt the parade, which this year was dedicated to Franco-American friendship. Leading the parade of 4,000 French soldiers were 160 cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Then a New York Fire Department vehicle carrying four New York firefighters led a group of French fire engines down the Champs-Elysees toward the reviewing stand at the Place de la Concorde.

In the crowd were 75 relatives of New York firefighters who died in the terror attacks of Sept. 11. Guests of the Paris Fire Brigade for a 12-day visit, they were given front-row seats for the parade.

"There are tears because I'm doing this in his honor, and I wish he was here to see it," Sharon Cole said of her husband, Keithroy Maynard, who was among the New York firefighters killed Sept. 11. "I know that he would be so happy that this was done for his sake."

After yesterday's parade, Chirac held a reception in the gardens of the Elysee Palace, the presidential residence, that was attended by the American cadets. He gave a traditional holiday news conference to three television news presenters. He was not asked about the assassination attempt and made no reference to it, but his wife, Bernadette, was the first to tell reporters that the gunman had planned to kill the president.

The police said Brunerie pointed the gun at himself after firing a first shot. Officials said the gun had been loaded with five bullets. They described the man as an "extreme rightist mythomaniac" and said he would be held in the police psychiatric detention unit until a court hearing today. They said anti-terrorist police had searched Brunerie's home at Courcouronnes, about 20 miles south of Paris, and found "nothing significant linked to the attack."

Although Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy described Brunerie as "a militant of the extreme right" who was known "for his violence and police record," no one has yet suggested that Brunerie's action was part of a larger conspiracy to kill Chirac.

An investigating magistrate at Paris police headquarters said Brunerie seemed disoriented during interrogation. "He admitted he intended to kill the president, but his words were very confused and incoherent," the magistrate said.

Nicolas Couteau, a spokesman for a French police union, speculated that Brunerie was working alone. "I don't think there was any plot because the shooter would have used a gun of a larger caliber," he said. "It looks like the act of a demented person." Other experts, however, said a .22-caliber rifle can be deadly if fired at close range.

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