After presiding over the Bastille Day parade, where the impressive military might of France was on display on the Champs Elysées, a relaxed President Hollande addressed the nation through the traditional interview. After all, France had successfully hosted the Euro Cup in spite of a series of debilitating strikes and renewed terror threats by the Islamic State. All this, in the wake of devastating floods, the worst the country had experienced in a century. The French president vowed to instil confidence in his countrymen and confirmed the lifting of the state of emergency on July 26. He ended by saying, “To be president, is to be confronted with death, tragedy and horror”. The same evening his words rang true. Less than 24 hours later, a visibly moved Hollande was back on TV declaring three days of national mourning and extending the emergency.
The attack in the city of Nice, which left 84 dead and around 300 injured, 50 of them critically, took place on July 14, France’s National Day, the day the republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity are celebrated. The Promenade des Anglais, a picturesque walkway and avenue along the brilliant blue Mediterranean, normally captured on camera by all visitors to this riviera city, was transformed in the space of a couple of minutes into what resembled a war zone.
Each such act of carnage — this is France’s third major attack in 18 months — leaves citizens feeling more vulnerable. After the Paris attacks, the first time suicide bombers acted on French soil, it was clear that anyone and everyone was a potential target. The Nice attack, demonstrates that anyone and almost everyone could be a potential terrorist. There is no need for extensive training, guns, bombs or weapons of mass destruction. A simple vehicle suffices. Ownership is not even an issue; a 19-tonne truck can be rented with the specific purpose of mowing down happy families with children. In under two minutes, a single trucker mercilessly killed roughly as many people as three terrorists with assault rifles and endless rounds of ammunition in several hours, in the Bataclan concert hall in the November 13 attacks, after weeks or months of planning and training.
In the aftermath of each such act, there is an astonishing amount of solidarity. Nice was no exception. If anything, southern France’s reputed warmth and sense of hospitality had even more people opening their doors to complete strangers. In a few hours, Nice’s blood bank shut its doors to donors, so overwhelming had the response been.
Predictably too, the blame game began along with attempts to make political capital out of this human tragedy. The far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen called for the resignation of the socialist interior minister and the far-left condemned the prolongation of the emergency. The weakened president called for political cohesion and reiterated France’s commitment to fighting the IS in Iraq and Syria. Struggling to cope, the government has asked “patriotic citizens to join a reserve force” to support the over-stretched and exhausted police and security forces.
The ground reality is the government and ruling class are powerless in France, as they are the world over, to prevent such attacks. The Nice attacker, a depressive, violent loner was radicalised very quickly and appears to have acted independently, though the IS has claimed the attack. The numbing possibility that this kind of attack can be carried out anywhere, any time without the intelligence agencies having a clue has left the public with a heightened sense of vulnerability.
As a country in the forefront of the fight against radical Islamist groups, France is a prime target for terrorist attacks. The greatest threat is now from its home-grown crop of jihadists and would-be jihadists. The tide against terror will only begin to turn when France reaches out to her alienated, disaffected Muslim citizens, gives them the requisite space to express their identity and culture. Integration cannot take place solely at the state’s behest. Given the current state of affairs in France, the identity politics, the fear mongering and the lack of political will, it is going to be a long haul.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ”In The Shadow Of Terror”)