Friday 28 October 2016

The horrific reality is dawning on France: that terrorist slaughter is set to be the new normal

Mary Fitzgerald

Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30

'The people of Nice, like so many others elsewhere in France, will wonder if this is the new normal.' Photo: AFP/Getty Images
'The people of Nice, like so many others elsewhere in France, will wonder if this is the new normal.' Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Immortalised by countless artists, Nice's Promenade des Anglais - referred to affectionately by locals as La Prom - hugs the city's famous Baie des Anges, or Bay of Angels. "All of Nice can be found on La Prom," as a friend who lives there puts it.

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That was the case on Thursday night when thousands gathered for a fireworks display to mark Bastille Day, France's national holiday. What began in celebration ended in chaos and blood after an 18-tonne truck ploughed for more than a mile through the dense crowd of locals and tourists, mowing down scores.

At least 84 people, including several children, were killed and dozens more injured. Shocking footage showed bodies lying scattered along one of the most beautiful seafronts in France. The driver of the truck, identified as a 31-year-old Frenchman of Tunisian origin, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was shot dead by police as he opened fire from the vehicle. Local authorities said the truck was packed with weapons and grenades.

The assault, at the height of the tourist season in a city considered a jewel in the crown of the south of France, came eight months after a series of attacks one November evening in Paris that resulted in 130 dead and a country knocked sideways.

France has been in a state of national emergency since then.

The mass murder in Nice took place just as it seemed that France was breathing a sigh of relief after the month-long Euro 2016 football tournament had ended without terrorist incident.

There had been fears that terrorists linked to the Paris attacks and the Brussels bombings in March were planning to target the games, which drew hundreds of thousands of fans to France.

Eight months of jitteriness appeared to have given way to a slightly more relaxed atmosphere in major cities, including Nice. Now people wonder if French security forces had let their guard down too soon.

Hours before the carnage unfolded in Nice, President Francois Hollande told Bastille Day revellers in Paris that "we cannot prolong the state of emergency eternally" and indicated that it would soon be lifted. Now, it is to be extended for at least three months, with more soldiers deployed across the country.

In a striking statement on Friday announcing three days of national mourning, prime minister Manuel Valls told the nation: "The times have changed and France should learn to live with terrorism," a line that will have sent a chill throughout the country. He went on to vow: "We will never give in to the terrorist threat."

Isil, the group that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, did not make any immediate claim for the mayhem in Nice, although supporters on social media applauded the killings. Local media said the perpetrator was known to police but only for involvement in petty crime and that he had not come onto the radar of the intelligence services.

While little is known about the motive for the attack, it turns the spotlight on the dynamics shaping France's fifth-largest city and one of its most affluent. Nice's celebrated postcard-perfect beauty masks complicated political and social currents.

Its population of some 340,000 includes a large support base for the far-right National Front. With the French presidential elections just a year away, the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, has already sought to exploit Thursday's killings for political ends, as she did with the Paris and Brussels attacks.

Some of the National Front's core in Nice are drawn from residents of 'pieds noir' heritage, meaning they descend from those who were forced to leave Algeria after its bloody war of independence against French rule in the early 1960s.

The city is also home to an estimated 60,000 Muslims, many of them of north-African origin.

In recent years, some of its youth have fallen victim to radicalisation.

As David Thomson, a French journalist who follows the country's jihadist stream closely, noted this week, Nice is one of the most affected cities in France. According to Thomson, of the estimated 900 French nationals who have gone to join groups like Isil in Syria and Iraq, more than 100 are from Nice.

With a security alert causing the busy local airport to be evacuated within 24 hours of Thursday's attack, Nice is not only coming to terms with scores dead but also with hard new realities of how life in the city may be affected from now on.

Several forthcoming events, including a five-day jazz festival, have been cancelled. The city's tourism industry will take a hit. More soldiers will patrol its streets, including the famed Prom.

And the people of Nice, like so many others elsewhere in France, will wonder if this is the new normal.

Irish Independent

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