French minister rejects allegations of Nice cover-up

Policewoman claims she was told to alter report about police presence on July 14th

French president François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls defended their embattled interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Monday against accusations of a government cover-up regarding security on the Promenade des Anglais on July 14th when a truck attack killed 84 people.

Driver, Tunisian man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhle, also injured 300 people.

The accusations have been levelled by Christian Estrosi, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region president, and Sandra Bertin, who heads the department of video-surveillance for the municipal police.

During his eight years as mayor of Nice, Mr Estrosi installed 10,000 video cameras around the city. The cameras failed to prevent the July 14th massacre, for which Islamic State, also known as Isis, claimed responsibility.

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In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche and a subsequent press conference, Ms Bertin claimed that the minister of the interior dispatched a commissioner to the video-surveillance centre the day after the attack, and that the commissioner “put me on the phone with [the interior ministry on] the Place Beauvau.

“ I spoke to someone in a hurry who asked me for a report showing where the municipal police and barriers were, and told me to be sure to say that there were national police at two points as well,” Ms Bertin said.

“The national police may have been there, but I didn’t see them on the videos. I was harassed for an hour. I was told to include specific positions of the national police that I didn’t see on the screen.”

Mr Cazeneuve reacted angrily in an interview with France 2 television, declaring his intention to sue Ms Bertin for defamation.

“I am confident . . . because I know the truth,” he said. “I know that no member of my cabinet was ever in contact with Ms Bertin.”

The person who visited Ms Bertin at the video-surveillance centre was a commissioner from Nice, who put her in touch by telephone with a woman at the headquarters of the central directorate of public security – not the ministry – in Paris.

"What is certain is that the person presented herself as working in the minister's cabinet," said Ms Bertin's lawyer Adrien Verrier. He and Ms Bertin on Monday named the officials who Ms Bertin claims harassed her, in a complaint for "forgery of public documents".

When the anti-terrorism sub-directorate of the judiciary police last week requisitioned 24 hours of videotapes from the Promenade des Anglais, Mr Estrosi portrayed the measure as a cover-up.

Officials have since explained that investigating magistrates have all the footage of the attack and its aftermath, and that the government simply wanted to prevent the images reaching social media or being exploited by Islamic State.

Mr Cazeneuve said he was “nauseated to see what is happening” and vowed, “I will come stronger out of this vile campaign of calumny. I will return blow for blow.

“I will not accept that people question my honour and dignity as minister of the interior.”

Mr Valls told BFMTV that Mr Cazeneuve is “a man of integrity, a statesman, a great interior minister. This is a purely political controversy. From the first day . . . when the wounded and the corpses of those who had been killed by this terrorist were still on the Promenade des Anglais . . . the former mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi started this controversy. It’s despicable.”

The massacre has brought out an ugly, rebellious streak in Nice, a stronghold of the far right.

At the ceremony of homage to the victims, where the prime minister was booed on July 18th, part of the crowd sang Nissa la bella, a traditional song conveying nostalgia for the pre-1860 era when Nice was not a part of France.

Ms Bertin had praised Mr Estrosi extensively on her Twitter account, which she closed at the weekend.

She belongs to an Estrosi fan club, and signed a petition he initiated against “state laxity” in the face of radical Islam. Her husband had retweeted posts by the far right Bloc Identitaire.

The controversy is "a second victory" for Islamic State, the minister for families, children and women's rights Laurence Rossignol told LCI television.

“The enemy sees that and says, ‘Very good.  We’ve managed to sow discord among French politicians.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times