After Nice attack, French ask if more integration is needed

The government in Nice has taken dozens of measures to fight radicalism, including more police, more money, and more cooperation among its immigrant and native populations. But results have been mixed.

Luca Bruno/AP
Ghassan Zaour watches people gathered around a makeshift memorial after observing a minute of silence to honor the victims of deadly attack near the area where a truck mowed through revelers, on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France, on Monday.

The Promenade des Anglais has long been an icon of easy living. For the residents of Nice, it holds memories of first swims or first tastes of ice cream. For visitors, it is the essence of the French Riviera.

But beyond this palm-fringed symbol of Nice lies a much more complicated reality. The city is also home to disenfranchised immigrant neighborhoods, in a region that is a stronghold for a far-right party gaining ground by rejecting them, and in a department, or administrative region, with one of France's highest rates for radicalization of young men claiming to be acting in the name of Islam.

The 20-ton truck that Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove into the promenade on July 14, killing at least 84 people in his path, brought both worlds crashing together.

It is still early days. But many say that taking into account the reality of Nice – and the country at large – is the first step toward healing at a tense moment, as calls for security will grow and as France finds itself divided, politicized, and downright scared by successive attacks.

“The city’s primary ambition has been to preserve and defend tourism, not wanting to show certain things. But we need to accept that our multiculturalism is a big part of what Nice represents – not only beautiful beaches and landscapes but cultural diversity,” says Yvan Gastaut, a historian at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis.

“For now, there is a tendency to be ashamed of it and to hide it. We ought to promote it. We need to improve our ability to all live together.”

In recovery

Families are still scouring hospitals for their loved ones, while some victims have yet to be identified. The motivation of the driver remains unknown despite a claim by Islamic State for the attack.

In the immediate aftermath, Nice has come together. Jérémy Simon Collado, a journalist at the local daily Nice Matin, was at home watching a movie and got a call from his colleague. Their boss was at the site, almost hit by the truck. The staff went right into work, and from that moment on, the community mobilized. Taxis offered free rides and residents opened their doors. One hotel saw 500 people race in as the white truck went barreling down the promenade, wreaking untold horror. Employees opened rooms and distributed blankets and pillows.

On Sunday, churches opened their doors in prayer. At Nice’s cathedral, a sign welcomed anyone "to pray for the victims of the attack.” It was packed with several hundred worshipers gathered for mass or lighting candles, joined by tourists in backpacks and clutching beach gear.

Along the Promenade des Anglais, massive tributes continue to grow, thanks to donations from local florists. Along the pathway of the truck are smaller memorials, marking each spot a reveler, there to celebrate France’s Bastille Day, was hit. Many of them include hot-pink teddy bears and stuffed puppies, reminders that children are among the dead.

Several victims also came from Nice’s significant Muslim population. Mr. Collado says that the various communities here – of different nationalities and religions – have tended to get along, or at least get on without too much conflict. But tensions have mounted, sometimes stirred by politics.

Nice's radicalization problem

Nice is a Cote d’Azur town known for its wealth. It is home to many older, conservative residents, as well as so-called pieds-noirs: white French colonists who settled here after being kicked out of Algeria after it was liberated. Southeast France is also a stronghold of the far-right National Front, which has grown nationwide both on anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Nice first attracted immigrants after World War II. Most were from Algeria, Tunisia, and Italy, and came to construct hotels, roads, and houses. Many newer immigrants, like attacker Bouhlel, also have come in search of work. While the immigrant community first lived in the city’s old town, they were later pushed into marginalized communities on the outskirts. “There was a major divide between the touristic, central artery of the town and the working-class districts,” says Prof. Gastaut.

But with the rise of jihadism, Nice has found itself in the center of a radicalization problem, with certain neighborhoods particularly vulnerable. According to the Nice-based NGO Entr’autres, which works to counter radicalization, 120 people in this region, Alps-Maritime, have left for Syria to join jihadists. Eleven of them came from the same family.

It's prompted the government to put in place a deradicalization plan, says Isabelle Dor, a radio correspondent for France Inter.

In the spring, the government took dozens of steps to fight radicalism; those included more police, more money, and more cooperation with other countries as well as local schools and social workers, to check the signs of radicalization. Authorities also visit prisons where radicals are trying to influence others, and have have been clamping down on mosques to ban radical imams.

'Not enough acknowledgement'

But the results have been mixed. “Deradicalization absolutely does not work," says Collado, the journalist. "In France today, we can’t deradicalize someone. We don’t have the right measures in place. What we’re talking about more so in France today is how to dismantle the jihadist cells and stop closing our eyes to the problem.”

Others share his view. Gauthier Ratinaud, who is about to enter university, says that the government has to walk a fine line between security and freedom.

"In January, with Charlie Hebdo, in November with the Bataclan, and now with Nice, it's difficult to believe we're doing enough," he says. "I believe sometimes that we have ideas to defend ourselves against terrorism, pragmatic things, not really democratic things, and when it's against democracy or liberty it's not easy to convince people."

A poll by Ifop in the daily Le Figaro showed that 67 percent of respondents have no confidence that President François Hollande’s government can stand up to terrorism.

And the issue of integration continues to be a touchy one.

“One the one hand, authorities are trying to develop [immigrant neighborhoods] culturally, improve apartment buildings and generally improve people's lives, but there has not been a real discourse on integration,” says Gastaut. “There is also a certain desire to hide this part of the city from view. There hasn’t been enough acknowledgment of the discrimination that takes place and their lack of complete integration.”

Political ripples

But many wonder whether the root of the problem will be addressed, especially as a presidential election next year comes into full swing.

“After the Paris attacks [in 2015] there was a kind of truce in politics for a few days. This time there is no truce,” says Ms. Dor.

Already politicians have blamed one another. She points to the fact that presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy came to the Nice cathedral immediately following the attacks, saying the nation must do more so that it’s “not crying” every six months.

But by choosing the cathedral to make his point, she believes he is also dividing communities, sending a message that France is a nation with Christian roots, and others aren’t welcome, she says.

President Hollande and his government have said France must, and will, stand together, just as they did after Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in January 2015, and then 10 months later after the Bataclan attacks. But another eight months later, can France remain united?

Mansouria Mokhefi, a specialist on North Africa at IFRI, a think tank is Paris, isn’t sure. “We’re in a moment of uncertainty and danger. Our society is broken, more fragile,” she says. “So are these government calls for cohesion, to remain united and calm, heard and respected? Is it enough for French people? Honestly, I don’t know.”

• Colette Davidson reported from Paris and Sara Miller Llana from Spain.

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