Nice massacre: Angry crowd boos French prime minister at ceremony
‘The terrorists want to divide us, and the politicians are doing it for them’
Nice remembered the 84 dead of the Bastille Day massacre more in anger than in sorrow on Monday, when a crowd of thousands booed and jeered Manuel Valls. The French prime minister had flown from Paris to observe a minute’s silence closing three days of national morning.
The ugly, animal sound started as a growl and rose to a roar at the sight of the head of government. “This isn’t the moment, you idiots,” one man shouted.
Several people had told me how much they resented Vall’s “fatalism” in warning that there will be more attacks, that more lives will be lost, that France’s war against terrorism will take a long time.
Others echoed Valls. “We have to live with it; we have no choice,” said a woman called Sophie, who sells lingerie in a department store.
Two canon volleys sounded at the end of the silence. “To the dead,” a voice intoned over a loudspeaker. There was long applause in homage to the dead. The crowd sang La Marseillaise, their fervour increasing dramatically when they reached the verse, “To arms, citizens … may an impure blood water our furrows.”
The reference to “impure blood” has often been interpreted as a reference to Saracens, Arabs, Muslims. “Vive la France! ” the crowd shouted. But the booing and jeering recommenced moments later, as prime minister Valls departed.
A young woman in black wept near me. She was Nathalie Pinheiro Alves, whom I interviewed the morning after the attack and wrote about in Saturday’s Irish Times. By chance, we had ended up together, in a crowd of many thousands.
Pinheiro Alves saw dozens of people cut down by the lorry on July 14th, and narrowly escaped herself. She trembled, her body wracked by sobs. “It’s shameful to do this now,” she said of the booing and jeering. “That’s not what we came for. A lot of these people weren’t even there that night. They didn’t see anything.”
The crowd were angry with the press too. “I hate journalists!” a red-headed woman sneered at me. “Your profession filmed dead bodies!” a young woman said, turning round to face me when she heard the redhead.
As I tried to comfort Pinheiro Alves, a third woman joined the melee. “The media are partly responsible for everything that happens,” she said, almost spitting. “Peddling all this rubbish about ‘solidarity’.”
The Bastille Day massacre has hardened attitudes. “I didn’t vote for the Front National (FN) until now,” said Benoit (27), a graphic artist. “The attack made up my mind for me. We’ve tried everyone else.”
“Hollande is the man responsible for this act,” a decorator called Nico joined in angrily. “He was about to lift the state of emergency…. He has done strictly nothing…”
On Sunday night, Valls and his interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve issued a joint communique, defending the government’s record. “Until now, no government has done as much to fight terrorism,” the text says.
But the grieving, angry people of Nice are not convinced. “I’m here to demand protection,” said Marie-Claire, a middle-aged woman who works in a hospital for old-age pensioners.
But did they have any solutions? I asked. “The solution is that he [Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the killer] should have been in Tunisia, not here,” said Benoit, the FN convert.
“If you have a residence card and you commit an offence, you should be expelled,” Marie-Claire added, referring to Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s assault conviction.
Several people approved of Christian Estrosi, the former right-wing mayor of Nice, now president of the Provence-Alpes- Côte- d’Azur region, and a critic of the socialist government.
Not Benoit. “Estrosi was chummy with the UOIF [the Muslim federation of France, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood]\. He was a cabinet minister when [former president Nicolas] Sarkozy did away with la double peine [which provided for the expulsion of convicts who did not have French nationality]\. If we still had it, that sonofabitch wouldn’t have been able to drive his lorry down the promenade. Obviously, they’re all responsible: Valls, Cazeneuve, Hollande…”
Most of those I spoke to said they feared a backlash against Arab Muslims. Except Benoit. “I don’t fear it anymore,” he said. “If something happens [against Muslims]\, I won’t blame the people who did it.”
“People are tense, wound up,” said Rodolphe, 42, a sports coach, as if apologising. “It was so violent,” he said, referring to the attack. He, his wife and three daughters had been just beyond the point where Laouaiej-Bouhlel’s rampage ended.
Rodolphe held Malia, four and a half years-old, through Monday’s brief ceremony. Ten children, including at least two boys his daughter’s age, had perished.
“They must react now,” Rodolphe said of the government. “They have 11,500 people on the S-list [\suspected of being radical Islamists]\. They know who they are. We should send them home.”
But many are French citizens, I objected. “A lot of the people who died here were French citizens,” Rodolphe said bitterly. As for the people on the S-list, “they don’t deserve to be French. Those radical preachers, they know who they are. Why don’t they arrest them? How did [the lorry driver] continue for 1.7 kilometres and nobody stobbed him? Where were the police? I was here and I didn’t see any cops or gendarmes.”
Relatively few Muslims attended the commemoration. Perhaps they were frightened. Two middle-aged Franco-Moroccans nonetheless held a homemade banner stained with red, saying “Stop Politicians. Respect our Victims.”
“Our relatives are still in hospital. The bodies are barely cold. And they’re campaigning for [the presidential election in] 2017. It’s shameful. It’s disgusting,” said Hocine Jamouli, 62, a restaurant owner and head of Nice’s Moroccan association.
“The terrorists want to divide us, and the politicians are doing it for them,” Jamouli continued. “Islamophobia is on the rise. Racism and terrorism too. They go together; the two ideologies feed each other. There must be a single discourse against terrorism.”
Like other people at the commemoration, Jamouli felt that even now, security remains sloppy. “We came in carrying bags today. Nobody checked us. Anyone could have killed here.”
“All you need is a few grenades in your pocket,” a passerby said.
Perhaps most of all, the people of Nice feel their city has been robbed of its greatest treasure, the Promenade des Anglais, painted by Matisse, frequented by Graham Greene, immortalised in film by Jacques Demy.
“Our city has been sulled by terrorism,” said maths professor Frédéric Lellouche. “Because from now on, whenever we come here, we’ll think of this crime.”