The scenes from the centre of Nice Thursday night were eerily and immediately familiar. Another barricaded street, another line of grim-faced police with many victims lying dead beyond, another symbol of the French Republic brutally assaulted.
The only sign that the carnage was somewhere else this time – rather than the streets of Paris that were attacked twice in 2015 – were the palm trees of the French Riviera glowing blue in the flashing police lights.
By late Thursday, French authorities were moving toward the seeming inevitable conclusion. It was no accident that a white truck had plowed at high speed into dense crowds as they walked home from a Bastille Day fireworks display near Nice’s normally languid seafront, killing dozens.
It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what comes next. The bloodshed has already been called a “terror attack” by France’s President François Hollande. Next, the finger of blame will almost certainly be pointed at Islamist militants, likely the so-called Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the November gun and bomb attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Social-media accounts affiliated with IS were already celebrating the rising death toll Thursday night.
And so begins a cycle we’ve seen happen twice before in France in just the past 18 months. As with the November attacks – and a January, 2015, assault on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher grocery in Paris – the violence will achieve its aim of tearing a little more at the fabric of French society.
First and fast will come the days of shuddering fear. After the January attacks, which killed a total of 17 people, I stood stunned as French police rushed into the Paris wine bar where I sat and roughly arrested a man of North African appearance who had apparently made the bartender “uncomfortable” with a bad joke.
In November, I was on Place de la République in Paris two days after the spate of attacks in the city when someone on the square heard what they thought was a gunshot. Hundreds of us panicked and fled, even though police later determined that no shot had been fired.
There will be more soul-searching about why France has been repeatedly targeted, and what the violence says about the relationship between the state and its Muslim minority. There will almost certainly be more incidents like the threats directed at mosques in the wake of last year’s attacks. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, will get a boost in the polls ahead of presidential elections next year.
All this is now sadly and horribly routine.
Thursday’s attack was different from its predecessors in style, although not in intent. As with the November attacks, it was aimed at “soft” targets, at ordinary people enjoying themselves. The IS propaganda that will follow will make the link that, since French fighter jets are part of the coalition that bombs Sunni Muslims living in the areas it controls, French and other Westerners will not be allowed to know peace in their homes either.
As with last year’s attacks, which took aim first at France’s sometimes raucous tradition of free speech, then at the very Parisian joie de vivre, the target in Nice was another symbol of France and Frenchness: Bastille Day, July 14, is the day France celebrates its democracy, the gift it sees itself as giving to much of the Western world.
The Bastille Day attack hit a country that was just starting to recover from the horrible events of last year. The country had just hosted the month-long Euro 2016 soccer championships, with no repeat of last year’s terror.
The sigh of relief was audible from the Élysée Palace. On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Hollande announced that a state of emergency declared after the November attacks – one that has seen armed soldiers patrolling train stations and other public sites – would be lifted on July 26. Just hours later, the President announced it would be extended by three months.
Speaking just hours before the truck plowed into the crowed in Nice, Mr. Hollande acknowledged that the threat “remained.”
Many in France will be wondering now if the threat – and the fear – will ever go away.
The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jul. 14, 2016 10:26PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Jul. 15, 2016 7:59AM EDT