François Hollande takes heat for anti-terrorist strategy after Nice attack

In the recollection of carnage, several eyewitnesses in Nice found refuge in metaphors of nights out bowling. As if death on a massive scale, death before their eyes, could be contained if wrapped in words about a banal pastime.

Political elite called naive and out of touch as simple weapons like a truck, a knife, lead to carnage

Ambulances line up near where a truck drove on to the sidewalk and plowed through a crowd of revellers who'd gathered to watch the fireworks in the French resort city of Nice in southern France. (Claude Paris/Associated Press)

"It was like in a bowling alley."

"People were being knocked down like bowling pins."

In the recollection of carnage, several eyewitnesses in Nice found refuge in metaphors of nights out bowling. As if death on a massive scale, death before their eyes, could be contained if wrapped in words about a banal pastime.

Others talked of panic, of a mad stampede to avoid the careening white truck on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.

"There were bodies everywhere, mothers, children. I just don't understand," one local man said.

In the early morning, many bodies still lay on the locked-down promenade, some under white tablecloths from nearby cafés.

At 4 a.m., French President François Hollande spoke to the nation.

"Horror has once again struck France," he said, calling the attack a "monstrosity."

A defeat for Hollande

Hollande looked shaken, weighed down. This attack, he knew, was both a monstrosity and a defeat for him and his government. It was the third mass murder inflicted by terrorists in France in the past 18 months, after the attacks on Paris and at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It took place on Bastille Day, France's national day.

People pay respects to the victims of the Nice attack on the city's Promenade des Anglais. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

And it took place on the day that Hollande announced he would later this month be lifting the state of emergency in place since the last bloody attacks on Nov. 13, 2015, which killed 130 people around Paris.

Now, he was forced to announce that the state of emergency would be extended, that the 10,000 soldiers patrolling the country's streets would continue to patrol indefinitely and that France's 28,000 reservists would be called up as well.

All of France, he said, was facing the Islamist threat.

We're at war.We have to go further, be much tougher. We have to use the arms of war.- Eric Ciotti, Républicain MP for Nice

The Islamist threat in this case appeared to be one French citizen, of Tunisian origin, who had rented a truck and obtained a handgun. He was known to police but wasn't on the security service's "S," or surveillance, list as being suspected of terrorist links.

He'd been picked up on minor charges. He was considered a "delinquent."

In the immediate aftermath, the country's leaders, of right and left, expressed their sorrow and solidarity with the victims and the people of Nice.

But from the far-right National Front, which won 28 per cent of the votes in French regional elections at the beginning of the year, there were far harsher notes.

A shaken François Hollande called the attack in Nice a 'monstrosity.' (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

National Front sees 'wolves'

"Spare us the indignation of the vultures of the main parties who let the wolves in to carry out this carnage." Those were the words of Eric Domard, a senior adviser to Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader.

The vultures are Hollande and his presidential rivals, the "wolves" are Islamists, and Domard's harsh words are  important because one of the National Front's main electoral bases is the south of France.

There are over five million Muslims in France (the figure is approximate because the census cannot ask about religious affiliation or ethnic background). That's more than seven per cent of the population, and a large number live in the south. These are mostly families with North African roots.

Police officers and soldiers block access to the scene of the Nice attack. Throughout France, 10,000 soldiers will continue patrolling the streets and 28,000 reservists are being called up. (Claude Paris/Associated Press)

National Front leaders point to Muslims as the source of many of the region's problems, both political and economic. The party's southern regional leader, MP Marion-Maréchal Le Pen (she's the niece of Marine Le Pen), says Muslims can't really be full citizens because France is a Christian country.

"That means they must accept that they are in a culturally Christian country, and they can't have the same rank as those from a Catholic background," she says.

The fact that a man of Tunisian origin apparently carried out the slaughter in Nice will reinforce the National Front's offensive.

Their main opponents in the south are the mainstream right-wing party, Les Républicains. In the hours after the attack, the Républicain MP representing Nice, Eric Ciotti, was already trying to head off the National Front by attacking Hollande and his socialist government as "naive."

Get tougher, says Hollande's opposition

"We're at war," he said. "We have to go further, be much tougher. We have to use the arms of war." 

That, he said, means a permanent state of emergency, permanent border controls and much more invasive surveillance of suspected Islamists.

Gilles Kepel also joined the debate. He's one of France's leading experts on Islamists, and he agreed that the political elite is naive and out of touch. But harsher measures and more soldiers won't work.

France, he said, is now facing third-generation Islamist attacks. The simplest of weapons — a truck, a knife (used to kill two police officers in a recent attack) — in the hands of a solitary individual will eventually lead to murder, defeating exhausted police and footsore soldiers.

The answer, Kepel said, is to look at the sources of disaffection among young Muslim men in France and to battle Islamic radicalism where it grows. France can defeat the jihadis, he said, but only if it changes its strategy.

And France clearly has a problem far bigger than that of other countries. Of the 12 terrorist attacks in the European Union in the past four years, seven took place in France, killing almost 250 people. That's five times more than the death toll in all the other 27 EU countries combined.

Sobering figures for Hollande. His anti-terrorist policy is failing, and with it, his presidency.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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