In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks across Paris, the French public – normally known for their disdain for authority – stood in unity with their president, François Hollande, who saw his support surge to its highest levels in three years.
But the scenes at Nice's Promenade des Anglais on Monday, where a veritable sea of locals and tourists gathered for a minute of silence for victims of the attack there on Bastille Day, showed a vastly different picture – of a government losing ground with an ever-more exasperated public.
Monday’s gathering was not only a public memorial to the 84 people killed and more than 200 others wounded when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel bulldozed a 19-ton truck through celebrating crowds, but an answer to the government’s call to remain unified and cohesive in increasingly worrying times. But as Prime Minister Manuel Valls walked through the crowds of the southern seaside city, he was booed, and hecklers called out “murderer” and “resign” in his wake – a moment witnessed by the nation on live television.
The Nice attack – which marks the third time a self-proclaimed or organized terrorist has struck French soil in 18 months – has become a tipping point for a public fed up with the government’s apparent inability to prevent attacks and what it sees as ineffective, insufficient security measures. The government’s calls for unity have largely fallen on deaf ears, coming as they have after months of deteriorating confidence and social unrest, including aviation, train, and garbage strikes, anti-police violence, and nationwide protests.
“There was an immediate sense of anger [after the Nice attack],” says Paul Vallet, an associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. “There was no period of public opinion being subdued, no looking at authorities for reassurance. People’s reaction was, ‘there has to be something wrong with the modus operandi here.’”
'Tired of terrorist attacks'
An Ifop poll conducted in the days after the Nice attack showed that support for President Hollande and Mr. Valls’ government had dwindled to 33 percent, while 88 percent said the government wasn’t doing enough.
“French people are becoming tired of terrorist attacks in France, three in just over one year,” says Paris resident Glenn Dumoulin. “Even though the investigation is not over, it seems quite surprising to say the least that a truck was even able to park or to circulate in the Nice city center, a city which has thousands of CCTV cameras.”
Part of the public’s frustration, says Vallet, is a feeling that officials had just begun to let their guard down at a time when security should have been tightened. In his annual Bastille Day television address, Hollande spoke of success in having avoided security threats during the month-long European Championships soccer tournament, and said confidently that the state of emergency – in place since the Nov. 13 attacks – would be lifted on July 26.
“My feeling is that some of the public anger stems from the sentiment that once the Euro was over, the worst period had passed and there would be a relaxing of security efforts,” says Vallet, “even though France’s national holiday is a time when there is a continued need for vigilance.”
Fanning the flames was a comment by Prime Minister Valls immediately preceding Nice’s minute of silence, when he declared that while the government would do everything in its power to stamp out terrorism, “there will be new innocent victims … we need to know that and prepare for it.”
Immediately after the Nice attacks, President Hollande reinstated the state of emergency and called on the military reserves to step in and join the security effort, in addition to maintaining Operation Sentinelle – a permanent deployment of at least 7,000 troops across France since January 2015.
The recent Ifop poll shows that 50 percent of those surveyed were in favor of bolstering the state of emergency and 81 percent supported a limit on freedoms and an increase in control operations. But when it comes to the military’s growing role in stamping out domestic terrorism, many say it’s a waste of talent and resources. And the government's recently renewed calls to increase its reserves suggest that its intention of boosting military personnel by 12,000, raised on the heels of the November attacks, has largely failed so far.
“The response of the government hasn’t brought any new element,” says Mansouria Mokhefi, a North Africa specialist at the Paris-based IFRI think tank. “The state of emergency has already been implemented since Nov. 13, we’ve increased our attacks on Syria and Iraq, calling for calm and cohesion among the public. It’s the minimum that the government can do. But it doesn’t bring any changes to the situation.”
Others say the judicial system fell short, allowing Nice attacker Bouhlel to escape a 6-month prison sentence for aggravated assault of a fellow driver on a highway last March. Bouhlel’s criminal record, while short, also includes theft and domestic violence of his now ex-wife. Bouhlel has remained in France since 2008 with a 10-year temporary residency card.
“How can a foreigner, who has been at multiple times the object of legal investigations for violence and even condemned to prison, not be automatically deported to his home country?” wonders Dumoulin. “The first priority of a country is to protect its citizens who respect the law, not to spare foreigners who disrespect it.”
And at the same time that Hollande has called for unity, he has found himself with a France more divided than ever. Since May, after the government introduced a controversial labor reform law, the country has seen some of the largest and longest-running protests since the French Revolution.
The reform was the catalyst for protests that included the Nuit Debout movement, which characterized itself by a general discontent with mainstream government, and an anti-cop demonstration that ended with the burning of a police car. And just when Hollande’s government thought it couldn’t get any worse – and as the country prepared to host the Euro soccer tournament – train and aviation strikes brought travel to a near standstill.
All this makes the 2017 presidential elections a daunting prospect for Hollande, if he does decide to declare his candidacy. Newcomers like Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron have come onto the scene and far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen will look to capitalize on the recent spate of terrorist attacks and anti-immigrant sentiment.
“The current government is going to have its hands tied as far as strategy is concerned,” says Vallet. “In part because all of the indications in the past few months were that Hollande’s re-election bid is centered on reuniting all forces from the left. But these repeated attacks are elements that are likely to lead some people to swing their votes over to the far right.
“It’s not a very happy expression, but the government has to make use of these attacks in order to present some kind of political capital that will justify their campaign.”