From Charlie Hebdo to Bastille Day: France reels after new deadly attack
France is again reeling after another night of carnage left dozens of people dead and scores injured.
It is too early to speculate on the motivation or possible affiliation of the attacker who drove a truck into a crowd in Nice, in the south of the country. But it is the latest in a series of bloody attacks since the murder in the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015.
Over 80 people are reported to have been killed in Nice and their names – once they are known – will be added to the scores who lost their lives in the Paris attacks in November last year, those killed at Charlie Hebdo’s offices, those who died in a subsequent attack on a Jewish supermarket. Yet more planned strikes have been foiled in that time, French officials have said. After November’s Paris attacks, the French government put in place a state of emergency, which restricts civil liberties. It allows police to conduct searches without a warrant and place people under house arrest outside the normal legal process.
A French parliamentary investigation into last year’s terrorist attacks on Paris has identified multiple failings by France’s intelligence agencies.
The parliamentary commission was set up to assess the failure to prevent a series of attacks that killed a total of 147 people in 2015 – from January’s gun attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher grocery store to the coordinated gun and bomb attacks on 13 November outside the national sports stadium, at bars and restaurants and at a rock gig at the Bataclan concert hall.
The commission highlighted a “global failure” of French intelligence and recommended a total overhaul of the intelligence services and the creation of a single, US-style national counter-terrorism agency.
“Our country was not ready; now we must get ready,” said Georges Fenech, head of the commission.
France has six intelligence units answering variously to the interior, defence and economy ministries.
Where, during the Paris attacks, the killers chose the night that France’s national football team was playing, in Nice, the attack took place on the country’s national day. Bastille Day is one of the most important days in the calendar to many French people. While it marks neither the start, nor the end, of the French Revolution – as people sometimes believe – it represents a significant blow by French people to a tyrannical regime and, as such, the spirit of the French Republic itself. Many streets are usually closed off to traffic – if they are not, revellers often just take them over. Families and friends come together and fireworks displays and other celebrations are standard.
It was at one of these that the attackers struck. In doing so, it is difficult to conclude that their assault was not intended to be directed at the heart of France’s national identity.
Besides those atrocities, France also suffered in August 2015 when a gunman opened fire on a high-speed train that was carrying more than 500 people, before he was overpowered by three Americans – two of whom were soldiers – and a British passenger. In that sense, at least, the attack in Nice echoes the others that have taken place in two of the worst years France has experienced since the Nazi occupation. In Paris, besides a national stadium full of French football fans, the targets were places where people would come together to socialise. In the Charlie Hebdo shootings, it was the free speech on which France – like other countries – prides itself that the militants were attacking.
The gunman had several weapons in his luggage, including a Kalashnikov, an automatic pistol and razor blades.
In June this year a man with a previous terrorism conviction stabbed a police commander and his wife to death at their home outside Paris and streamed the attack on Facebook.
In response to previous major attacks, French people came together. They met at the Place de la République – the large square in eastern Paris that holds huge symbolic meaning for many French people. They also came together in the immediate aftermath – offering “Portes Ouvertes” (open doors) to those seeking shelter. They did so again on Thursday night and it remains to be seen if and where they will gather to mark the passing of yet another night of violence.
Security forces across Europe and the US were also formulating a response. Barack Obama condemned what he said “appeared to be a horrific terrorist incident” and offered any assistance that may be needed to investigate it.
The UK Foreign Office called on all Britons in France to exercise caution and follow the instructions of local law enforcement officials. Initial details suggested a tactic which jihadi propaganda has suggested for several years, with a vehicle ploughing into a crowd. Inspire magazine, affiliated with al-Qaida, urged the tactic several years ago.
French police forces and forensic officers stand next to a truck that ran into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day. Photo by Eric Gaillard