THE spots where the bodies fell are now marked by makeshift memorials along the palm-fringed beachfront. Some are ringed by pebbles. Most feature candles, stems of white flowers and teddy bears. Ten children were among the 84 killed on July 14th, when a 31-year-old Tunisian citizen ploughed a 19-tonne truck into Bastille Day crowds. A football lies among the mementos left where a 13-year-old French boy, Mehdi, was killed. His aunt died a step away. “I just hope this won’t be turned against us,” says a grieving family member, whose origins are in Morocco. “We grew up in France; we come from here too.”
This was the third mass terrorist attack in 18 months, and the bloodiest on French soil since the Paris attacks last November. The proudest emblems of French life have been targeted: freedom of expression (Charlie Hebdo) and religion (a Jewish supermarket), as well as the security forces, in January 2015; sport, music and pavement cafés, in November 2015. Now, terror has struck seaside festivities for the country’s national day at one of its most famous resorts, favoured by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and painted by Matisse and Dufy.
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a delivery-driver born in Tunisia but living in Nice, drove his rented lorry for 1.7 kilometres (1.1 miles) over a promenade closed off for the city’s annual fireworks display, where some 30,000 spectators had gathered. He rammed the vehicle into the crowds, driving on and off the walkway used daily by joggers and cyclists, crushing bodies as he went. The carnage stopped only after he was shot dead by the police. A third of the dead were Muslims.
President François Hollande immediately called the attack “terrorist” in nature. Mr Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s rampage, though, is a reminder of how the definition of Islamist terror has evolved. He showed a “certain interest” in radical Islamist movements, said François Molins, the Paris public prosecutor, and videos of decapitation were found on his computer. Islamic State (IS) claimed he was one of its “soldiers”. But Mr Lahouaiej Bouhlel also ate pork, did not go to the mosque, and had an “unbridled sex life”, said Mr Molins. No direct evidence of his allegiance to IS has yet been found.
Those who study radicalisation in France say that this profile is not uncommon. Deep religiosity rarely plays a part in the swing towards political jihad. Nor does IS need to issue direct orders. It “inspires this terrorist spirit”, said Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister. In 2014 Abou Mohammed Al-Adnani, an IS spokesman, urged jihadists not to worry if they could not blow themselves up or shoot a gun: smash the skull of a “French or American infidel” with a stone, stab him with a knife, or “run him over with a car”.
It is not unusual for radicalisation to take place quickly, particularly among the violent or unstable. A loner, unknown to intelligence services, Mr Lahouaiej Bouhlel was given a suspended prison sentence earlier this year for violence. He grew a “religious” beard just eight days before the attack, said Mr Molins. “This is not an anomaly,” says Hugo Micheron, a researcher on French jihadists: “There are different routes into jihadism today, and I’ve seen several cases of radicalisation taking place within a couple of weeks.”
Nice may be best known as a swish tourist destination. But behind the old town’s Belle-Epoque façade, the high-rise neighbourhoods that spread up the ravines beyond the city have become one of the most intractable centres of Islamist radicalism outside the Paris region. At least 55 residents of Nice and other towns in the department of Alpes-Maritimes, which covers the Côte d’Azur, have left for jihad in Syria or Iraq, including 11 members of one family. In part this is the work of a vigorous local French recruiter, known as Omar Omsen, or Omar Diaby. He was thought to have been killed in Syria last year, but seems to have faked his own death.
Côte de jihad
A local early-warning unit set up by Alpes-Maritimes in 2014 to counter radicalisation has so far received 600 alerts. Fully 37 individuals from the department have been expelled from France, and 15 others prevented from leaving the country. Five underground prayer houses suspected of preaching violent Islamism have been closed down. Moderate Muslim leaders fear that the latest attack will deepen distrust. A striking 36% of Nice voters backed the far-right National Front at the most recent elections. “The Muslim community is doubly attacked,” says Boubekeur Bekri, rector of the Al-Forqane mosque, which lies near the brutalist tower blocks of Ariane, a banlieue of Nice: “By Daesh [IS]—and by those who are playing Daesh’s game by dividing Muslims.”
The Nice attacks are sorely testing France’s ability to withstand a permanent terrorist threat. Manuel Valls, the prime minister, has told the French to “live with terrorism”. Mr Hollande announced fresh air strikes on Syria. Parliament has voted to extend the state of emergency, conceived last November as a temporary response, for a further six months. Yet such measures may be more about managing public anxiety than fighting terrorism. Hours before the Nice attack, Mr Hollande had announced that he would not renew the state of emergency. Of nearly 3,600 house raids carried out under its provisions, only five have led to a terrorism-linked judicial investigation.
Last year, the French reacted to terror mostly with defiance and unity. In November parliamentarians of all political colours spontaneously sang the national anthem after Mr Hollande’s speech announcing a “war on jihadist terrorism”. Today, however, there is increasing French anger at the failure of their government to keep people safe. After a minute’s silence this week, Mr Valls was booed by crowds in Nice. Only 33% told a poll they have confidence in the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
Opposition politicians on the centre-right have turned on the government too. “If all measures had been taken, this drama would not have happened,” claimed Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and presidential hopeful for the 2017 election. Arguably there could be more robust blockades around crowded public events, Israeli-style. But France is already on maximum alert, and has stretched its armed forces by putting 10,000 soldiers on patrol on the streets. The cruel reality is that if terrorists can turn lorries into weapons, it is impossible to keep everyone safe.