If you want to get a sense of what happened in Nice on Thursday night, just imagine a 19-ton truck slicing through a festive crowd of families and friends watching the Fourth of July fireworks, maybe in Miami Beach or Santa Monica. Beyond the horror and the almost incomprehensible number of victims (85 dead, 202 wounded), one of France’s most cherished symbols, its national holiday, was shattered.
The driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was born in Sousse, Tunisia, in 1985. He was married, had three children, and had been living in Nice for an undetermined amount of time. He was a truck driver by profession, which had allowed him to rent the huge vehicle he used to commit mass murder. He was only known by the authorities because of an altercation with another driver last January. That unremarkable case of road rage had landed him in small claims court, and garnered him a 6-month suspended prison sentence. On Friday morning, his neighbors told France Info radio that he “loved beautiful women and salsa,” and that he was on the outs with his wife, whom he beat on a regular basis according to several reports in the French press.
Even though there has been a few arrests, so far it does not seem that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel got significant help from anyone. Unlike the November attacks in Paris and the more recent ones at Brussels and Istanbul airports, there is no indication of accomplices so far, let alone a highly trained team of disciplined soldiers on a mission.
That is the most troubling part about Thursday night’s horror: Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was most likely a lone wolf (although ISIS belatedly claimed responsibility). At last count, he killed 85 people (including 10 children) and injured more than 200 on his own. He managed to do this despite that France had been on lockdown since the Paris attacks last November.
With the state of emergency authorized by parliament, one can see soldiers in full gear, with helmets and FAMAS assault rifles, patrolling the streets of every major French city. Not just at airports, stations and monuments, but also on the plain sidewalks of regular streets. And there are a lot of them (more than 10,000 according to Le Monde, France’s newspaper of record). Sometimes, when sitting at a cafe terrace, your wandering eyes may encounter the muzzle of a semi-automatic rifle. Unless you’ve been raised in Texas, so many guns out in the open are uncanny and disturbing. They’re certainly strange for the French, who have no particular taste or use for guns in their everyday lives.
But everyday life has been upended since the November attacks. The state of emergency was extended several times so as to cover the month-long UEFA European soccer championship organized by France. The more-than-honorable showing of the home team (which lost to Portugal in the final last Sunday), and the absence of any “problem” during the tournament led the government to call the whole affair a success. Fan zones, where people gathered by the tens of thousands to watch the games on jumbotrons, were kept safe. And so were the stadiums. On the morning of the July 14th attack, before everything changed, a visibly relieved President François Hollande announced that the state of emergency would be lifted by the end of the month. No more soldiers, no more heavy guns.
It turns out the major terror attack everybody feared happened on France’s hallowed Bastille Day instead.
Bastille Day is as close to a sacred day as it gets for such a secular country as France. We celebrate the Revolution of 1789 and the birth of our Republic, when our French ancestors got rid of the monarchy and the Church and replaced them with democracy and human rights. July 14th is the day when the Parisian people stormed the hated royal prison, the Bastille, and ushered in the Revolution that turned us all into citizens rather than subjects of an absolute king. It still matters today because it is a collective commemoration of the ideals of the early Republic: Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité.
On Bastille Day, there is a huge military parade on the Champs-Elysées. Tanks, airplanes, and various invited regiments from friendly countries take part in the pageant. For ordinary citizens, July 14th is a work holiday. We go out and hang out in parks and cafes. It is a perfect day for family fun—a casual game of soccer among friends, a few drinks and indulging in the national pastime of complaining about random things. From the small village to the capital, cities organize fireworks displays in the evening as a matter of civic pride.
There were an estimated 30,000 people on the beach and the main drag in Nice on Thursday night. This truly is like the Fourth of July, which gives a sense of the magnitude and the of shock for everyone in France. A major civic symbol and and source of national pride has been maimed and bloodied.
On Friday, the opposition was all over that public shock. The far-right National Front started to accuse the government of being soft on crime and soft on immigrants, on the grounds that the truck driver had already been arrested. For instance, check out tweets by Steeve Briois, Marine Le Pen’s lieutenant and mayor of Henin-Beaumont (a medium-sized city in the North of France) tweeted that "this laxity is killing us."
He’s insinuating that the government had not arrested enough people and was thus somehow responsible for the massacre. This kind of rhetoric is not limited to hard-right firebrands. Center-right party luminaries such as Alain Juppé also came out on Friday with criticism of the government’s presumed softness.
The French government has been anything but soft since November. Next to 10,000 soldiers roaming the streets, the state of emergency has led to almost 3,500 raids and arrests, which in turn resulted in 530 judicial proceedings. But only 20 of those were related to terrorism—most of the others were for possession of illegal firearms and drugs.
The state of emergency also allowed the government to put people on house arrest without judicial review. Since November, 470 of these house arrests were enacted. The government seemed to have used them for purposes other than terrorism: for instance, about 20 environmental activists were prevented from demonstrating during the Paris conference on global warming last December.
It is hard to gauge the actual success of this unprecedented erosion of civil liberties in the face of terrorism. We will probably never know how many deadly plots were foiled. What we know for sure after last night’s horror is that the state of emergency could not stop someone from renting a 19-ton truck and drive it into a peaceful and happy crowd. In light of that, I still hope that the French will see through the local populists’ incessant stigmatization of Muslim citizens and immigrants. The Nice massacre amply demonstrates the limits of such calls and policies.
Nice prides itself on being France’s safest city. Nice, wealthy and historically very conservative, has the highest ratio of surveillance cameras per inhabitant in all of France, according to Le Monde. Christian Estrosi, its former mayor, is a trusted associate of Nicolas Sarkozy and has not been shy in espousing the National Front’s populism and xenophobia. He is one of the foremost proponents of muscular policing and immigration control. In that he follows the lead of a majority of his constituents: The South of France has been very supportive of the National Front, in large part because it is an area where many former French people from Algeria resettled after the colony’s independence in 1962.
On Thursday night in Nice, the most law-and-order-friendly policies, combined with the full powers of the nationwide state of emergency, utterly failed. It is no surprise, then, that the populists from the National Front to the mainstream center-right were so quick to criticize the government’s actions. This failure exposes the fallacy of their argument: no amount of policing or targeting of Muslim citizens will work 100% of the time.
If anything, this suggests tough days ahead for France. People will have to suck it up and brace for more of these tragedies until things get back to normal. The Prime Minister Manuel Valls summed up that feeling in an interview on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche: “there will be more innocent victims. It pains me to say that, but we must know it and be ready for it.” The state of emergency has been hastily extended for another 3 months. Military reservists have been called. The French army is sending back its planes and troops from the Champs-Elysées to Syria.
The shadow of terrorism will loom large in the upcoming French presidential campaign. This might not get far-right Marine Le Pen elected, but neither will it help containing the rising tide of strident, anti-immigrant populism. (In the same interview, Manuel Valls even urged the French not to cede to “Trumpization.”)
Despite my overwhelming sense of sadness over the attack in Nice, I still want to believe that the enlightened ideals of 1789 are stronger than extremism in all its ugly forms, whether imported or homegrown. France does not need more soldiers in the streets—it needs more fraternité.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.