Attack in Nice sparks security questions, community tensions
PARIS - France again declared three days of mourning after the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice but, unlike after previous atrocities, there was widespread anger directed at French authorities for perceived security failures.
Mohamed Lahaouiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian with a history of legal and mental health problems, ploughed through pedestrians on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais in a 19-tonne rented lorry late July 14th, killing 84 people and injuring many more.
Although the Islamic State (ISIS) was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, questions remain about Bouhlel given his background as a petty criminal who had recently shown no signs of being outwardly very religious. Some French officials argued that he was radicalised in just a matter of weeks.
France’s National Assembly voted to extend the national state of emergency, which was instituted after the November Paris attacks, for an additional six months in the wake of the Bastille Day carnage. The state of emergency grants police extra powers to carry out searches and arrest people.
French authorities arrested and charged five people in connection with the attack as the investigation suggested that Lahaouiej could have been planning the attack since 2015. Questions have been raised about French intelligence services given that neither Lahaouiej nor any of the detained suspects were known to them.
Previous terror attacks in France, including the November 2015 Paris attacks in which 137 people were killed, as well as the attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo newspaper in January 2015, resulted in mass expressions of French solidarity. However, the latest attack was accompanied by public calls for a review of French security and intelligence amid an ongoing political storm centring on the government’s security record, which is expected to increase ahead of presidential elections in 2017.
Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the latest attack, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged that “times have changed and we should learn to live with terrorism. We have to show solidarity and collective calm… They wanted to attack the unity of the French nation.”
“The terrorism threat will be a fundamental and enduring problem and other lives will be wrecked,” he said in an interview with France’s Journal du Dimanche.
The French government came under criticism for perceived security failures surrounding the attack in Nice, particularly after it emerged that police vans blocking the promenade were withdrawn hours before the attack. They had been in place to protect a military parade at the promenade earlier. There were reports that just 60 police officers were on duty to provide security to an estimated 30,000 people at the site of the attack. The new state of emergency also prohibits public gatherings where sufficient security cannot be provided.
Nice municipal regulations ban lorries of more than 3.5 tonnes from the city centre. The 19-tonne lorry that Lahaouiej had rented should have been stopped by authorities before he reached the city centre, especially amid heightened security on a national public holiday, critics argue.
The French government’s response to the attack was also criticised, with former French prime minister and expected presidential contender Alain Juppé saying of Valls’ comments: “Fatalism isn’t a policy.”
France is gearing up for a heated political battle between President François Hollande’s Socialist-dominated government and right-wing critics, particularly over national security.
Valls was booed as Nice observed a minute of silence in memory of the 84 victims. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is head of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement and is said to be eyeing a presidential run in 2017, strongly criticised the French government for failing to protect its citizens.
“Democracy must not be weak, nor simply commemorate. Democracy must say ‘We will win the war’… Everything that should have been done over the past 18 months was not done,” he was quoted as saying in France’s Le Parisien daily.
Also criticising Valls’ response to the attacks in an opinion piece published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, former French Justice minister Rachida Dati said: “For such a senior figure to suggest that we should adapt to fear, violence and bloodshed was, in my mind, beyond belief. It displayed a clear lack of leadership at a time when the people need more: the people need to be, and to feel, protected.”
Much more so than in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, North African communities in Nice, Tunisians particularly, are expressing wariness over possible reprisals, even though more than one-third of the victims were reported to have been Muslim.