Wednesday 21 February 2018

Unwelcome reputation as breeding ground for jihadis

NICE: A symbol of the good life for many years, but now also a symbol of terror
NICE: A symbol of the good life for many years, but now also a symbol of terror

Jamie Doward in Nice

Of all France's great cities, none can rival Nice when it comes to conjuring up images of the sun-kissed good life.

With a stunning marina that draws in the wealthy yachting crowd, France's fifth largest city enjoys an enviable position on the French Riviera not far from the millionaires' playground of Monte Carlo and beautiful Juan-les-Pins, where Picasso and F Scott Fitzgerald held court. If, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Paris is where good Americans go when they die, Nice must be reserved for the truly sainted.

But now the city's reputation as an all-year-round holiday spot, attractive to both the easyJet set and boat-owning millionaires, is under threat. Away from its beaches, palm trees and swish hotels, the Cote d'Azur has earned itself a new, unwelcome reputation: as a breeding ground for jihadis.

Disaffected youths in the region, many of them the children of Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian immigrants, are drawn to the extreme Salafi strain of Islam promoted by charismatic preachers who denounce western decadence.

After Paris, the Alpes-Maritimes area, of which Nice is the capital, is the leading hotspot for Islamist radicalisation in France. Analysis by The Economist suggests that the department has recorded 522 alerts about newly radicalised individuals.

Tensions in Nice have been threatening to spill over. In February a man attacked three soldiers with a knife outside a Jewish community centre, while two years ago the former mayor was accused of antagonising local Muslims. And there have also been concerns expressed about the opening of a new Salafi mosque.

Now one unpalatable question facing Nice is whether last Thursday's atrocity will have a lasting impact on its image. In the short term, the city has had little choice but to forge a new, more subdued path for itself.

The Nice jazz festival, due to start yesterday and featuring acts such as Massive Attack, has been cancelled. The singer Rihanna called off her concert there, too. But many tourists who were in the city when the attack happened have taken to social media, pledging that they will continue with their vacations. Those who have booked holidays on the Cote d'Azur are also unlikely to change their plans, experts believe.

"Of those who have already booked their holidays, I think very few will cancel," says Frank Brehany, consumer director of Holiday Travel Watch, the holiday watchdog. "This is partly because they will lose their money, but also because they will be reassured by the reaction of the French government in extending the national state of emergency."

The extension will see a visible security presence, both in Nice and across France, continued for another three months. This will entail more police and soldiers on the streets, a graphic reminder to the millions who visit France each year, that the country, faces a "high threat from terrorism".

"Attacks could be indiscriminate," the British Foreign Office explained. "Due to continuing threats to France by Islamist terrorist groups, and recent French military intervention against Daesh (formerly referred to as Isil), the French government has warned the public to be extra vigilant and has reinforced its own domestic and overseas security measures."

Visitors are being encouraged to download the free Saip smartphone app which alerts users, in French and English, about potential security incidents.

Brehany believes Nice will bounce back, however.

"As horrific as the Nice attack was, if you measure it against, say, Paris or Brussels, where there were multi-attacks, and both cities experienced lockdowns, there was a huge, immediate impact on tourism to both cities," he says. "But I was in Brussels recently and it was evident the changes they had made to security.

I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago in the midst of the European football championship and you wouldn't have thought there was any difference; there were huge crowds in the Gare du Nord.

"In the long term Nice will recover just as Paris and Brussels did." Nevertheless Brehany says the Nice attack was a wake-up call for Europe's tourist industry.

"After Paris everyone came out with the phrase 'we must not give in to terror', but I don't know what that means," he says.

"We really need to have a rethink about safety at our train stations, airports, ferry terminals and public spaces. One of the concerns I have is about the security of popular beaches following what happened in Tunisia last year.

"You cannot just simply offer a mantra in the hope that it will go away. You need to devise and, yes, spend money on the mechanics that make public spaces safe. You are not going to get rid of this thing, the randomness of these events, but you can, hopefully, move them away from more populated areas."

© Observer

Sunday Independent

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