AS FRENCH PRIME Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve step forward during a memorial in Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, where, on 14 July, 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel mowed down 84 people and injured another 200, the crowd boos them down. “We don’t trust our politicians anymore,” says Helene Louis, a tourist from Paris. “After every attack, they repeat the same platitudes about terrorism, but nothing changes.”Jean Langlois, a Nicois (inhabitant of Nice), is even angrier: “There was no security worth the name and we were left to fend for ourselves. What is our government doing?”
It was 14 July, France’s national day, and on Promenade des Angais—so named because in the early 19th century Britons, fed up with their rainy and cold weather, would come in winter to Nice, capital of the South of France, to enjoy the sun on the palm tree lined pathway that runs along the beach—more than 30,000 were watching the fireworks that are usually set off at midnight.
The security seemed to have been poor, whereas it was extremely tight during the recently held Euro Cup football matches. The French government may have thought that nothing would happen this festive season (14 July is when most French go on holiday for a month). Bouhlel, who had waited for hours with a 19-tonne truck he had rented, drove down the pavement where thousands were watching the dazzling sky. He did this zig-zagging, accelerating and braking, as he ploughed through the crowd over a distance of 2 km, crushing to death old men, young boys, women and children, half of them foreigners. In panic, everybody began running for cover, screaming, into restaurants, jumping onto the beach, going wherever they could.
Apart from a courageous civilian who tried to climb onto the truck but was shot at by Bouhlel, efforts to stop him were made by three police officers who were on duty in a lane that led to the Promenade. They heard about the attack on their walkie talkies, sprinted after the truck, and fired repeatedly at its driver with their standard-issue revolvers. Boulhel shot back with his own handgun before he was finally killed.
So far, the French police have come to several conclusions:
First, it was a premeditated act on the part of Bouhlel: he had emptied his saving accounts, sold his van and hired the truck five days before his act. Security cameras showed him doing reconnaissance along the Promenade a day before, and on his cellphone were found selfies that he took in the midst of the crowd on the very evening of 14 July.
Second, although most of his neighbours and family members say that Bouhlel was not religious, he seemed to have been, in the words of Cazeneuve, “recently and rapidly radicalised”: he had grown a beard, on his laptop were discovered numerous Google searches for a similar lorry attack in Nice at a restaurant that took place on 31 December last year. Also, between 1 July and 13 July, the killer had googled every day passages of the Qur’an and Hadees relating to the killing of ‘infidels’. He had also looked up terrorist killings in Orlando and Dallas. This was proof, said Cazeneuve, “that he was preparing his act”. Also found on his laptop were shots of radical jihadists brandishing Kalashnikovs and the ISIS flag, photos of Osama bin Laden and the Algerian ISIS chief Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Did Bouhlel act alone? Six other persons have been arrested, one of them being the individual to whom he sent an SMS minutes before his attack, requesting more weapons, such as the gun he used to fire at the policemen. “There is no way that Mohamed could have got his real and fake weapons without some help,” says an investigator. Bouhlel’s wife, who was also detained, has been released; she is in the process of divorcing Mohamed because she says he was often violent when drunk. Of course, the ISIS has claimed Bouhlel as one of its own, but the French government doubts it.
The statements of Louis and Langlois reflect much of the sentiment in France today vis-a-vis Islamist terrorism. ‘Nous avonspeur’ (we are afraid), say many residents of Nice, and also of Paris, which has been the target of many attacks in the past two years. Indeed, 2015 was branded an ‘annus horribilis’ by the French press. On 7 January last year, the Kouachi brothers entered the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and assassinated 12 of its editorial staff. On 9 January, Amely Coulibaly killed four people in a supermarket in the suburbs of Paris before being shot by police. On 19 April, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an IT student of 24 years, was arrested in Paris. He is suspected of having plotted to bomb two churches. On 25 June, Yassin Salhi killed and decapitated his boss and then exhibited the head with a jihadist flag in one of the factory’s show windows. On 25 August, Ayoub el-Khazzani, a French Moroccan, sprayed passengers on a train between Amsterdam and Paris with Kalashnikov bullets. He was overpowered by an American and two other men. On 13 November, Paris suffered its deadliest blow yet: a series of coordinated attacks, most notably at the Bataclan night club, left 130 people dead and nearly 200 injured.
This year had been relatively free of such horrific incidents, bar the 13 June attack when two French policemen, a man and a woman, were savagely killed by a 25-year-old jihadist, Larossi Abballa. And then Nice happened.
WHY IS FRANCE so frequently a target of terrorism: Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and now Nice? For one, the country has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, nearly 5 million, which is 7.5 per cent of the total. This proportion is expected to reach 10 per cent by 2030, since French Muslims have an average of four to five children per couple, whereas it’s only one for others.
France lacks an intellectual and political consensus on dealing with radical Islamism, though this is true of Europe in general
Secondly, as the Dalai Lama once gently put it, talking about Chinese atrocities against Tibetans, there is a ‘black karma’ that comes back to haunt oppressors. France’s rule in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia (the country of Bouhlel’s origin) was sometimes heavy-handed. In 1961, during the Algerian war of independence, it is believed that nearly 50 Algerians who participated in an illegal march in Paris were tortured and killed by the French police, with their bodies thrown in the Seine river.
Thirdly, many of France’s 5 million Muslims live in suburban ghettos in Paris, Marseilles or Lyon, the famous HLMs—Habitations à Loyer Modérés or ‘apartments with moderate rents’—that were built in the 1960s for Frenchmen and women of meagre means but which have since been taken over by followers of Islam. There, resentment breeds amongst the often unemployed youth and this often results in jihadist recruitment by imams or by hardcore militants such as Salah Abdeslam, the Belgian-born French national who mastered the 13 November attacks in Paris and is now in French custody. This may also be why France has more jihadists fighting in Iraq than any other European country.
Everything, however, is not black and white. Some of the descendants of Muslim immigrants, brought in as cheap labour in the 50s and 60s, are among the most accomplished of France’s intellectual, artistic and bureaucratic elite. The country’s education minister, for instance, Moroccan born Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, 38, sounds more articulate and witty than most of her French compatriots. Stand up comic Jamel Debbouze, also of Moroccan origin, is one of France’s best-loved actors. He even directed and produced a movie about the oft-ignored contribution of French Muslim soldiers to the victory against Germany in World War II. The writer Tahar Ben Jelloun received France’s highest literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt, for his novel, La Nuit Sacrée (‘The Sacred Night’).
Yet, the French government is in a bind. It wants to fully integrate its Muslim population, but it is faced by a dilemma: like in many other European countries, the Muslim masses—not the intellectuals, writers, bureaucrats, politicians and so on—appear to bear some degree of sympathy for Islamist terrorism, for they feel that it is a response to the targeting of Muslims elsewhere, in places such as Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir. “We saw in Belgium how the Paris Bataclan attack mastermind, Salah Abdeslam, was able to hide for months in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, which is totally Muslim. Is that not proof enough that the Muslim population backs terrorism?” says André Bugeot, a French terrorism expert. So what then? “Main de fer, main de velours,” smiles Bugeot. This French old precept, in essence, means: ‘Use the stick and the carrot’. France is thus expected to clamp down harder on terrorism. This would be even more pronounced if, as predicted, the current socialist government is overthrown at next general elections nine months away and a rightist one comes in. The French interior minister has appealed to Frenchmen to join La Force Reserviste, a reserve army of 12,000 soldiers, to fight terrorism.
But this is likely to be opposed by most of the media, such as the leading French newspaper Le Monde, in addition to human rights organisations, many intellectuals and French communists. It may also spark a backlash, as the government would be seen as Islamophobic. Thus, it can safely be said that France lacks an intellectual or political consensus on dealing with radical Islamism, though this is also true of Europe in general.
This may be why French politicians have started bickering as usual. Second-time presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that the socialist government’s handling of the present situation “is totally inept”. The National Front’s President Marine Le Pen denounced “serious lapses of the François Hollande government”. The rightist Euro MP Nadine Morano has asked for action, not speeches, and has demanded “the closing down of the Saudi- funded mosques in France, zero tolerance against any imam that preaches contrary to France’s secular values or demands submission of women, and a stronger enforcement of the burkha ban in France”. Nevertheless, after an intense debate, the French parliament has agreed to extend the state of emergency by six months. It’s the third renewal and the longest since the Algerian war.
However, every politician agrees this attack deals another blow to French tourism. If Paris is the world’s most visited capital, Nice welcomes 5 million tourists every year and its international airport boasts of a traffic figure of 12 million. Tourism in this seaside resort generates 75,000 jobs and a turnover of €10 billion. Its hotels have 100,000 rooms, but after the 14 July attack, many may have to go empty. The singer Rihanna has cancelled a concert scheduled in Nice, bookings have been annulled by the thousand, and the Nice Jazz Festival scheduled from 16 to 20 July stands cancelled. “We are forecasting a 20 per cent loss this summer,” says a hotelier in Nice.
Meanwhile, the film Bastille Day, in which a CIA agent tries to stop a terrorist attack in Paris on National Day, was pulled off 234 cinema screens in France because its story is too similar to what happened in Nice.
Finally, social media also played a major role in the tragedy of 14 July. It announced the truck killings before any TV or radio channel could do it, and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram censors had trouble deleting the disturbing photos and Islamophobic comments that were relayed to millions online. “Whether you like it or not,” says Michel, a Twitter fanatic, “you cannot control social media, as it does reflect the feelings of the masses, which politicians and the media often try to suppress.”