Tuesday 25 October 2016

Terror visits my slice of paradise as tense France holds its breath

Clodagh Finn

Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30

The sun casts long shadows as people walk on the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
The sun casts long shadows as people walk on the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Ahead of the Euros, the President of the Côte d’Azur region, Christian Estrosi, promised to make Nice’s fanzone the most secure in the whole of France.

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Some 124 security staff were hired to watch over an expected crowd of 10,000, who would pass through specially built metal-detecting gateways and be observed by a bank of state-of-the-art CCTV cameras.

The people of Nice are not the only ones at a complete loss for words as they try to figure out how that kind of ongoing attention to security has utterly failed them. How in a country in virtual lockdown, could an 18-tonne truck break through barriers on Bastille Day and drive for 2km, killing 84 people and injuring several others?

And on the Promenade des Anglais, of all places; that beautiful walkway that curves around the stunning Bay of Angels on the Mediterranean?

The country seemed to let out a cautious sigh of relief when the Euros passed off without incident. There had been a lot of social unrest during the championship, of course; there were violent clashes during demonstrations over labour reform and there had been trouble between the English and Russian fans, but the French deal with those situations very well.

Law enforcers never seem to be far away in France. Whenever there’s a potential incident, they seem to materialise out of nowhere.

When covering the World Cup in 1998, I remember being amazed at how quickly the French police were able to calm a near riot by English fans before a game in Lens, in Northern France.

Security has always been a feature of life in France, but it has been particularly visible since the French military intervened against Islamic extremists in northern Mali in 2013. The country had been on high alert even before the first terrorist attacks claimed 12 lives at the satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in January 2015.

Life does seem to go on as normal, but you get the sense that everything could change in an instant. Travelling through Marseilles airport two weeks ago, we spotted an unattended bag and pointed it out to the airport staff.

A woman in the queue claimed it as hers a moment later. The security official seemed relieved: “Otherwise, everything would shut down. Stop.”

The country is certainly on tenterhooks and you wonder if we will ever see a time when it goes back to ‘normal’.

My version of ‘normal’ goes back 20 years when I remember feeling like all my blessings had come at once after getting a job in Nice in a bureau-de-change.

I felt I had arrived in a little bit of paradise, with its high-end glamour, its Belle Epoque architecture, its blue skies and miles of beaches.

No wonder it’s been a tourist destination since the 19th century and has attracted up to a quarter of a million tourists a year.

The city had its high-rollers, but also many who were either first or second-generation immigrants who faced many social problems.

In 2013, the average unemployment figure was 15pc, compared with 10pc in the rest of France. There were lots of beggars. They used to come to the bureau-de-change to change their coins into notes. One of them was so grateful once, that he even gave us a present of a brooch. It was stolen, he said, but not from a person, from a big store – that was okay in his book.

And it does still seem so innocent, compared with this week’s events.

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