Eight months after a murderous rampage in Paris, a deadly attack in the coastal city of Nice on Bastille Day left at least 84 people dead and scores injured, threatening to throw a still-traumatized France into a tailspin and raising terror alarms across Europe.
Television and amateur video images showed a truck plowing into a late-night crowd of revelers in the southeastern French city, leaving people sprawled in its path and hundreds fleeing, including some pushing strollers. More than a dozen children were among the dead. The rampage, which ended after the driver was shot to death by the police, forced President Francois Hollande to call up military reserves and extend the state of emergency that he had intended to let lapse.
“Horror again has struck France,” Hollande said in the early hours of Friday.
The Nice assault is the third major terrorist attack in France since the January 2015 shootings at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a kosher store near Paris. In November, organized teams killed 130 people in Paris, in cafes and at the Bataclan concert hall. Four other attacks of smaller scale in the last 18 months bring the tally close to 240 dead with hundreds injured.
From the lone wolf attack in Orlando to this latest incident, Europe and the U.S. have been engulfed by waves of violence carried out by Islamic State sympathizers at a time when there is a populist backlash against immigrants and the political establishment, be it bureaucrats in the European Union or lawmakers in Washington.
“This is making Europe so much weaker at a time when Europe doesn’t know what it stands for,” said Ian Bremmer, head of consulting firm Eurasia Group. “You’re going to see more anger at immigration, you have to do more than express your sympathy when the problem is that there is no leadership in dealing with the problems.”
Most of the assailants in the prior French attacks, and in the killings in Brussels that left 32 dead in March, were of immigrant descent and from the Muslim faith. In the Nice attack, media reports said identity papers of a 31-year-old Tunisian with French residency were found in the truck. Police identified him as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel.
France 2 television said he was known to the police for criminal offenses, although he wasn’t on any terrorism-watch list. French TV stations cited his neighbors as saying he had three children, was going through a divorce and wasn’t particularly religious. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The attacker drove about two kilometers (1.2 miles) down the Promenade des Anglais, the main strip running along its beach where revelers had been watching Bastille Day fireworks. Weapons were found in the car, although French media cited police sources as saying the grenades were duds and the rifles fake. He did have a small 7.65 mm working pistol, BFM TV said.
Hollande said in an early morning address that the state of emergency, which Thursday he said he’d let expire July 26, would be extended, and that 10,000 military personnel would continue to guard sensitive sites. He had planned to reduce that number to 7,000. The French president flew to Nice with Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
France declared a three-day national period of mourning starting July 16. Paris anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins is scheduled to provide details on the attack at a press conference at 5:00 p.m. local time.
The tragedy in Nice was immediately seized upon by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has made the deportation of illegal immigrants a cornerstone of his campaign: “Another horrific attack, this time in Nice, France,” he wrote on Twitter. “Many dead and injured. When will we learn? It is only getting worse.”
Across the English Channel in the U.K., where Britons recently voted to leave the EU, the latest attack may do little to quell the frustration at what a majority of voters perceive as unchecked mass migration. France is battling some of the same demons.
In France, Bremmer points out, the anti-immigration and anti-EU National Front performed well on the heels of the Paris assault and may get a bump in the polls come the 2017 presidential election. The attacks in the past months were used by nationalist groups across Europe to step up calls to expel foreigners.
“This attack may nonetheless contribute to France’s sense that, with Islamist attacks on the rise and its old ally in the U.K. apparently in retreat, it has to take a more hawkish and assertive line to protect its citizens,” said Richard Gowan, New York-based fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“All of France is under the threat of Islamic terrorism. Our vigilance must be relentless,” Hollande said.
While Hollande’s response to terrorism has in the past earned him support across the political spectrum and two discernible improvements in popularity, his government’s failure to prevent this most recent killing may hurt any ambition to stay in power.
The first round of the presidential election is barely nine months away and Hollande has not declared his intentions on running again. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen of the National Front has said she will run for office. On the mainstream right, more than a dozen politicians are seeking the nomination of The Republicans, including former prime minister Alain Juppe. Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy is campaigning though is yet to declare himself a candidate.
The attacks in France and Belgium pose both a security and political challenge to political leaders. Assailants are bringing chaos into the heart of the EU, claiming their acts are to seek revenge for the coalition vow to destroy Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Hollande said that France would step up its bombing of Islamic State targets in reaction to events in Nice.
“The tragic paradox is that the subject of the Nice attack was the people celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity,” said European Union President Donald Tusk on Twitter.
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