Monday 19 February 2018

Streets are tense as France wrestles with the question of how to live with fear

The Nice killings were the third major attack in some 19 months. Photo: Boris Horvat/Getty Images
The Nice killings were the third major attack in some 19 months. Photo: Boris Horvat/Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

The magazine cover is a simple white page with stark black lettering. "Comment vivre avec la peur?" it asks, "How to live with fear?" It appeared on French newsstands in the days before teenage Isil sympathisers slit the throat of an octogenarian priest named Jacques Hamel as he celebrated Mass in a quiet village church in Normandy on Tuesday. That killing, coming so soon after Isil claimed responsibility for a truck attack in Nice that killed 84 people and injured more than 200 during Bastille Day celebrations, has sent a further chill across an already anxious France.

The day before the Normandy attack I had discussed with a friend in Marseille how Isil had, in its latest video, threatened the city we both call home for the first time. In the clip, two French-speaking militants, gloating over the recent carnage in Nice, vowed further attacks on France, specifically naming Paris, Nice and Marseille - the country's second city - as targets. My friend, who has two young children, told me how she and her husband had advised their sons on how to act in case of emergency, even devising code words. We talked about the new wariness in France, the way people nervously glance around in airports and train stations and on the Metro. The sense of not knowing what or where the next target could be. "It's the sad new reality," she sighed.

Others in Marseille, a city that, while home to one of France's largest Muslim populations, has not experienced the same level of radicalisation as other cities, responded to the Isil threat with black humour. One, a young Muslim named Mohammed Henni, posted a seven-minute, expletive-strewn video skewering Isil on Facebook. How dare they threaten his hometown of Marseille, he asks, going on to lambast them for "having nothing to do with Islam", thinking they are the only ones who speak for God, and for essentially having "completely lost the plot". He ridicules them further asking: "Who do you think you are, the Power Rangers?"

Henni's video has been viewed over 1.4 million times, and prompted French Isil members to respond with insults of their own in a social media war of words.

Henni's video provided some light relief at a time when France feels more jittery by the day. The Nice killings were the third major attack in some 19 months. In January last year, a raid by militants on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' left 12 people dead. Last November, a series of co-ordinated attacks in Paris claimed more than 130 lives. Since then, the country has been under a state of emergency and new security measures are planned.

In the Riviera town of Cannes, for example, local authorities this week decided to ban rucksacks and other large bags "which could conceal... weapons or explosive substances" from the area's beaches.

The government of President Francois Hollande, already under pressure following the Nice attack (Prime Minister Manuel Valls was booed when he visited the city last week), is under fresh scrutiny over security shortcomings after it emerged that one of the militants who attacked the church this week had tried to travel to Syria and was known to anti-terrorism investigators.

Defence Minister Jean Yves Le Drian has announced the 10,000-member Sentinelle military force would be dispersed to more areas outside Paris. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has pledged tighter security for public events taking place across the country in August, the month when most French take their holidays.

In Nice last weekend, I saw the thousands of wreaths and tributes laid on the promenade where the truck had ploughed through crowds gathered to mark France's national holiday.

While the seafront restaurants and cafes were busy, there was a strange mood in the city, sombre but also tense. Many fear the July 14 attack will deepen Nice's fractures - the city is a bastion of the far-right National Front as well as home to more than 60,000 Muslims. But tensions are also growing beyond Nice as the increasingly popular National Front takes advantage of the attacks of the past year for political gain.

Parliamentarian Marion Maréchal Le Pen (pictured inset) the 26-year-old niece of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, tweeted hours after the Normandy attack: "They kill our children, murdering our policemen and slaughter our priests. Wake up!" She later said she was willing to join the French military reserves - "we need to go beyond political engagement" - and urged others to do the same.

Isil has made little secret of its wish to sow divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim population. The manner in which the Hollande government handles the crisis and navigates around those who seek to exploit it will be key.

Irish Independent

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