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Spectators Help Thwart Would-Be Assassin

French officials credited spectators and police with thwarting an assassination attempt on President Jacques Chirac by a presumed neo-Nazi who pulled a rifle from a guitar case during the annual Bastille Day parade.

The man fired at least once from a fully loaded rifle as Chirac, riding in an open-top jeep about 50 yards away, was reviewing troops at the start of a pomp-filled military parade to celebrate France's national holiday Sunday.

Cries of alarm sprang out from members of the crowd along the sides of the flag-bedecked Champs-Elysees, near the Arc de Triomphe. At least one spectator grabbed the gun and reportedly turned it upward. Caught by police, the man tried to turn the gun on himself.

Paris police identified the man as 25-year-old Maxime Brunerie, a member of "neo-Nazi and hooligan" groups.

Police said the gunman was linked to a far-right student group, the Groupe Union Defense, among others, and had a history of psychiatric problems. The man was transferred to a psychiatric facility for testing, where he remained Monday morning. A doctor was to decide whether he was mentally fit to return to police headquarters.

French newspapers reported the young man ran in March 2001 municipal elections for the National Republican Movement, the far-right party of Bruno Megret, who is a former lieutenant of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Megret condemned the attempted attack on Chirac, and said in a statement that his party rejects "all forms of extremism and activism."

Chirac, who remained silent about the attempt on his life throughout the Bastille Day festivities Sunday, telephoned the four people on Monday who had intervened to save him, the presidential office said. It did not name those who received calls from Chirac.

"I saw a guy with a gun," said a tourist, Mohamed Chelali, who told LCI television that he and others in the crowd helped subdue the man, who was seen pulling a rifle from a brown guitar case.

Another man, Jacques Weber, knocked the rifle out of the attacker's hand and "I threw myself forward, grabbed the gun and then everyone started calling: 'Police, police,"' Chelali said. "They took a long time to come, maybe two to three minutes."

It was not immediately clear if the shot was fired in Chirac's direction or if it went into the air as police converged on the gunman.

"It was an assassination attempt," said a government minister, Patrick Devedjian. "He fired a first shot, which was turned away, then he was overcome and tried to turn the weapon against himself."

"He admitted he wanted to kill the president," added Devedjian, who is the minister in charge of local liberties.

When asked by reporters if the gunman was trying to kill her husband, Bernadette Chirac said, "yes, clearly."

Paris police said the gun was a .22-caliber rifle. Officers in civilian clothes put the man, who wore a gray hooded top, into a van and confiscated his rifle and the guitar case in which he had carried it.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told a news conference the rifle was bought last week and was fully loaded with five bullets.

The attempt on Chirac comes as several European countries are facing a resurgence in support for far-right groups. They have won votes by playing on fears of immigration, crime and economic stagnation. In Holland, anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated May 6. Police arrested an environmental and animal rights activist in the killing.

France was shocked by Le Pen's strong showing in the first round of the presidential elections, when he knocked former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the race.

Despite the attack, the Bastille Day parade, a colorful pageant with troops, armored vehicles and aircraft roaring overhead, continued uninterrupted.

The man was arrested at the top of the Champs-Elysees where it empties into Place Charles de Gaulle, site of the famous Arc de Triomphe. He managed to reach the Champs-Elysees despite heavy security. Police had lined the avenue and mingled with crowds along the route.

In a traditional televised interview after the parade, Chirac was not asked about and did not mention the attack.

Later, he hosted a Bastille Day garden party for thousands of invited guests at his presidential Elysee Palace. Again, he did not mention the attack in a brief appearance. After saluting the bravery of New York firefighters, who were invited guests, he dove into the crowd with a smile to shake hands.