France torn between anger and yearning for calm following Nice attack

French citizens abroad urged to step up security amid surge in Islamist violence

A parishioner in front of the  Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice on Thursday after a man killed three people and wounded several others in a knife attack. Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images

A parishioner in front of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice on Thursday after a man killed three people and wounded several others in a knife attack. Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images

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France has warned all its citizens abroad of the danger of Islamist attacks – “wherever they are, because the threat is everywhere,” said foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian – after president Emmanuel Macron convened an emergency meeting of the country’s defence council on Friday.

The meeting of the council, which comprises key members of the cabinet, was prompted by the murder of three people in the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice on Thursday, and was the third such meeting since Samuel Paty was beheaded outside the school where he taught on October 16th.

Le Drian said French embassies, consulates and schools throughout the world must step up security if they are to remain open.

The names of two of the three people murdered by a recently arrived Tunisian migrant on Thursday have been released.

The sacristan of the basilica, Vincent Loquès, would have celebrated his 55th birthday on Friday. A lay employee of the parish, he had looked after the church for 10 years. Parishioners said he kept candles lit, heated the church in winter and prepared the sanctuary for weddings, funerals and Mass. His was a constant, reassuring presence.

The 44-year-old woman who escaped from the basilica and died of her wounds in a nearby restaurant was Brazilian-born Simone Baretto Silva. She had trained as a cook and was described as perpetually cheerful. “Tell my children I love them,” were her last words.

The identity of the third person killed, a 60-year-old woman, has not been released. “Her throat was so deeply slashed that she was virtually decapitated,” the national anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said.

Candlelit vigil

“Nice, martyred city” was the front page headline of Nice Matin newspaper, over a photograph of a candlelit vigil outside the Basilica on Thursday night.

A young woman called Sandra sobbed as she told Le Monde that Loquès was “a great guy, always joking and eager to help . . . But why us? Why us again?” Thursday’s murders were the third Islamist attack in Nice and the fourth attack on a Catholic church since 2015.

“The wound of July 14th never healed,” another parishioner, a teacher named Franck, told Aujourd’hui en France, referring to the lorry attack that claimed 86 lives in 2016. “At the time I went to pray at every place where a body lay on the promenade, with the same rosary I am carrying tonight.”

Three pillars of French society – the press, education and now the Catholic Church – have been targeted by Islamists in the past five weeks. The country seems torn between anger and a yearning for calm.

“Nice: Islamist barbarity unleashed against France” was the banner headline of the conservative daily Le Figaro. Politicians on the right and far right are calling for Macron to do more against the Islamist threat. The president has promised strong measures in a draft law to be presented at the beginning of December.

“Too much is too much,” said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice. “It is time for France to free itself from the laws of peacetime and definitively annihilate Islamo-Fascism from our territory.”

The conservative deputy Eric Ciotti said, “We must stop defending pseudo individual freedoms.” The far-right leader Marine Le Pen called for “wartime legislation”.

Automatic pistol

An incident on Thursday, when a man brandishing an automatic pistol was shot dead by police in Avignon, shows how quickly people can jump to conclusions. Media reported that the assailant shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he advanced on police. The prosecutor in Avignon refuted the reports, saying the man who had been shot was “a Frenchman with no links to Islam”.

France seemed to rediscover its identity as a Catholic nation in the wake of the Nice attack. The murder victims were referred to in a Figaro headline as “three Christians”.

The most conciliatory words came from the Catholic Church. Msgr Eric de Moulins Beaufort, the president of the Conference of Bishops, tweeted two verses from the Beatitudes, saying “Blessed be the peacemakers” and “Blessed be the persecuted”.

The front-page editorial of the Catholic newspaper La Croix quoted Pope Francis saying “No to the spirit of vengeance”. It was important that the French “leave it to public authorities to repress fanatical violence” and that they “refuse to associate all Muslims with this barbarity”, the editorial said.

Fr Jean-Louis Giordan, who was the priest at Notre-Dame de Nice until last summer, expressed an opinion that one hears more and more often, though usually only in private. “I am angry at this discourse which, under cover of defending secularism and freedom of expression, dirties religions and stirs up crazies,” he told Aujourd’hui en France.

Macron’s first term in office is proving tragic, blighted by the coronavirus pandemic and the resurgence of Islamist violence. His handling of both catastrophes is likely to dominate the 2022 presidential campaign. And though Covid-19 is claiming more lives, the virus may prove easier to conquer than radical Islam.