Paris faces the threat of a terror campaign against Christmas shoppers after the discovery of five sticks of unfused dynamite in the massive Printemps department store in the heart of the city yesterday.
An unknown group warned that explosives would be detonated without warning in large "capitalist" stores unless France removed its troops from Afghanistan by the end of February.
Although the statement did not carry the usual hall-marks of al-Qa'ida, or other extreme Islamist groups, the warning was being taken seriously last night by French authorities. The ageing dynamite was found yesterday morning in the cistern of a toilet on the third floor in the menswear section of the designer brands store which is usually packed with Christmas shoppers at this time of year. An accurate warning letter had arrived at the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, yesterday morning signed by the Front Révolutionnaire Afghan.
All three Printemps buildings on the Boulevard Haussmann, the most crowded shopping street in Paris, were immediately evacuated. A police sniffer dog rapidly located the explosives, which were tied together with rope.
Police sources said that several factors suggested this might be the work of cranks or a marginal, extremist group, rather than an Islamist movement. The use of ageing, unfused sticks of dynamite, the dispatch of an accurate, warning letter and the use of the word "capitalist" all pointed away, they said, from a genuine Islamist or Afghan connection. On the other hand, they said, the letter was written in poor and ungrammatical French. There had been "little chance" of the dynamite exploding, they said. All the same, the letter's warning would be taken seriously and security in all large Paris stores and shopping streets would be tightened.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said that there was no question of France withdrawing its troops under terrorist threat and urged caution. "At this point in time I would call on everyone to be very prudent and very moderate," M. Sarkozy said.
While visiting the store just before it reopened yesterday afternoon the Interior Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, said: "Five sticks of dynamite, which were relatively old, were found in a toilet cistern on the third floor. The device was not operational. We must be cautious about the claims in the letter, which might be intended to send the investigation on a false trail."
The letter was posted in north-east Paris on Monday evening.
A Taliban leader warned in a video released last month – but apparently recorded in August – that attacks would be made in Paris unless France withdraws the 2,700 troops which are serving with other Nato forces. Farouq Akhoun Zadeh, who appeared in the video, claimed to be the leader of a Taliban force which had killed 10 French soldiers. He said: "This is a message to the French: if they don't admit their mistake and withdraw from Afghanistan, our response will be heard in Paris."
Seven "presumed jihadists" were arrested in the Paris suburbs yesterday but police said that they had no connection with the incident at Printemps.
The store, opened in 1865, has 2,000 employees and attracts an average of 100,000 shoppers a day – many more in the week before Christmas.