Over the past month, France braced itself for the risk of terror amid the Euro Championship, reinforcing its military presence around the country. It breathed a sigh of relief July 10 as the soccer event concluded without incident.
But four days later, as France celebrated Bastille Day, a suspected terrorist shattered the country’s tenuous sense of calm, raising the stakes for a country – and continent – struggling to maintain a steady hand in the face of sustained and low-tech attacks.
The driver of an enormous commercial truck, a French-Tunisian man and resident of Nice, barreled down the main pedestrian promenade of his city, killing at least 84 people as he sped along for more than a mile, horrifying the nation. Through 18 months of terror, France has witnessed targeted attacks on journalists, Jews, police officers, young Parisians out at cafes and a concert – and now on families enjoying fireworks in what is the country’s equivalent of the 4th of July.
This is the deadliest European attack since 9/11 outside a major capital, and at a very family oriented event. Because of the target and the choice of weapon, the challenge to European security has grown, as security officials seek to confront threats that have taken myriad forms and shapes.
“People were resting after the Euro [soccer championship], everything went OK, they were thinking, ‘We can finally enjoy July 14,' ” says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, who was heading to Nice where he has vacationed since he was a child.
“[Nice] is a powerful symbol. It is tourism season, July 14, a city known for cosmopolitanism, where pretty much the entire world goes,” he says. “[The terrorists’] communication strategy, and their ruthlessness, makes for an explosive cocktail.”
Television images showed hordes of people, including some with strollers, running away as the truck plowed into crowds along the palm-fringed Promenade des Anglais at the world-famous seaside resort city, just as fireworks were concluding. The carnage ended as police shot the driver dead, the truck’s windshield riddled with bullets.
The use of a truck to kill, and the mass death it perpetrated, unsettled many people. “The way he did it was especially violent, almost more violent than an explosive belt or firing into a crowd, because people had the time to panic," says Arnaud Touraine, a resident of Paris. "They could see the truck coming and had several minutes before it got to them. There were so many families and children there as well, strollers being pushed through the streets. It's horrible.”
Terrorist groups like Islamic State or Al Qaeda have urged adherents to use vehicles as a murder weapon as far back as 2010. It’s not the first time the West has seen the use of vehicles to kill – France has witnessed at least three others in the past two years – but this is by far the most deadly. “[They] are told to first go to Iraq to do jihad but if they can't, they should stay in their country and kill as many people as they can,” says François-Bernard Huyghe, a senior researcher at the think tank IRIS in Paris. “Use a knife, a gun, a truck. It's prescribed.”
France has been living in an extended national state of emergency since Nov. 13, when multiple attacks on the concert at Bataclan, trendy cafes, and the soccer stadium where France just hosted the Euro final killed more than 130 people. Just a few hours before the attack in Nice, President Hollande had announced that the state of emergency was coming to an end this month. It has now been extended for another three months.
French security has had some success in disrupting militant cells. But the French are rattled by the fact that attacks have occurred despite the reinforcements of security, both in France and elsewhere. The most recent mass attack in Europe hit the Brussels airport and metro in March, killing 32 people.
“At the bottom of my heart, I am a little traumatized,” says Akitsu Orii, a Paris resident. “During the Euro, I expressly avoided going to big crowded areas to watch the game because I was nervous about something bad happening. The feeling now is, we're always at risk of dying. I think it makes you live more to the fullest, to not have any regrets.”
Politicians expressed a sense of frustration and impotence amid threats coming from every angle.
“As I try to comfort the families, I also try to contain my anger; I can’t hide to you that I feel a deep anger,” Christian Estrosi, the president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region told BFM-TV Friday morning. “How is it possible in our country that, after everyone said there was a state of emergency, a state of war, we forgot it after Charlie Hebdo, and then there was the Bataclan. After the Bataclan, we forgot, and then there was Brussels. After Brussels, we forgot and there was Nice.”
But a sense of resilience and determination also emerged, from people opening up their homes in Nice to taxis offering rides, and French and Europeans determined to keep to their routines and vacations.
“For the moment this won't change anything in my daily life,” says Mr. Touraine. "Life goes on. That's a good thing at least, that life doesn't stop. In certain countries that's not the case, like in Israel where people have to stop living.”
But the target raised complicated emotions, especially for those looking for an escape from places that have seen attacks. A lot of Parisians have talked about getting away from the dark mood of their city, and the south of France is a favored spot. This has not gone unnoticed by intelligence analysts.
“There are two symbols that have been very explicit in this attack: the city of Nice itself is filled with elderly, rich people, it's a place of prostitution and good living. It's a symbol of sin,” says Mr. Huyghe. “Also it was Bastille Day so it meant we were celebrating the nation, democracy ... the representative government. And they think that anything that's not the law of God must be punished."
Hollande addressed the nation today in what has become what feels to the public a too-common ritual. “France has been struck on the day of her national holiday,” Hollande told the nation in a televised address early today. “Human rights are denied by fanatics, and France is clearly their target.”
Three days of national mourning have been called, starting tomorrow through Monday.
The president tweeted that France was “bereaved and afflicted” but would prevail over “the fanatics that want to strike her today.”
Sara Miller Llana reported from Spain.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of François-Bernard Huyghe's name.