France reels, moves forward in the wake of Bastille Day attack

Eighty-four visitors to the Bastille Day celebration on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France were killed on Thursday night when a man in a semi-truck drove into the crowded, pedestrian only thoroughfare.

One hundred twenty-one remain hospitalized. The attacker also fired upon civilians and police with a 7.62 automatic pistol before he was neutralized. Replica rifles were found in the vehicle alongside a replica pistol, dummy grenade, documents, a cell phone and a credit card and driver’s license identifying the driver. Six of the attacker’s associates have been taken into custody by security forces since Thursday for further questioning. The attacker’s ex-wife was taken into protective custody over the weekend and released on Sunday.

This is the latest in a series of attacks on French soil, and the second deadliest in the past year—eclipsed only by the shootings and bombings at the Bataclan nightclub in November 2015 in which 130 people were killed.

The Islamic State, or Daesh, claims to have played a role in the attack, but connections between the attacker and the organization have not been verified by intelligence officials. The group regularly and opportunistically claims responsibility for lone wolf attacks as a way to inflate their capabilities. Paris Prosecutor François Molins said the investigation would seek to learn whether the attacker had ties to Islamist militants, and added that the attack was “in line with the constant calls to kill” from militant groups.

Reaction on the ground was led primarily by French security forces, but ordinary citizens united to help each other find safety and locate their loved ones. Much of the civilian response came via social media with hashtags #PortesOuvertes and #RechercheNice trending in the wake of the violence. La Croix Rouge, France’s Red Cross organization, also reported overwhelming support to their calls for blood donations.

Bastille Day, or French National Day as it is formally known, is an annual celebration of the liberation of political prisoners held in Bastille prison in 1789. It marks the beginning of the French Revolution and the end of feudalism, with the abolishment of the monarchy in 1792. It has been celebrated as la Fête Nationale since 1880 and is a symbol of the Democratic values of liberté, égalité and fraternité. The storming of the Bastille provided momentum to the revolutionary undercurrent in France during this time. This action was praised by pro-revolution Jeffersonians and was ardently supported by the then U.S. Minister to France himself, Thomas Jefferson.

President Hollande highlighted the significance of the attack on the Promenade des Anglais in his official statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “France was hit on its National Day, 14 July, the symbol of freedom, because human rights are denied by the fanatics, and because France is obviously their target.”

Seconding President Hollande and emphasizing the shared values of the U.S. and France, President Obama’s official press release stated, “we stand in solidarity and partnership with France, our oldest ally, as they respond to and recover from this attack… we are reminded of the extraordinary resilience and democratic values that have made France an inspiration to the entire world, and we know that the character of the French Republic will endure long after this devastating and tragic loss of life.”

The social media response reflects a more genuine sentiment. Twitter users took to including the hashtag “#jesuisepuise,” or “I am exhausted,” alongside a litany of other tags used as displays of solidarity for past attacks in Orlando, Bangladesh, Paris and Brussels, among others.

France’s state of emergency has been extended three months due to the attack.

“So I’ve decided, at the Prime Minister’s proposal and together with the ministers concerned—the Defense and Interior Ministers—firstly that we’ll maintain Operation Sentinelle at a high level, which enables us to mobilize 10,000 soldiers, in addition to gendarmes and police,” President Hollande said in his official press release. “I’ve also decided to call in operational reserves—i.e. all those who have at some point served under the flag or been in the gendarmerie—to come and help relieve the pressure on the police and gendarmes. We’ll be able to deploy them wherever we need them, particularly for border control.”

In the context of growing political polarization and populist, nativist views across the West, this attack has been capitalized on by factions seeking to bolster their claims to legitimacy. Immediately following the attack, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen released a statement on the party’s website declaring “The war against the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism has not started, it is urgent now to declare.”

In the U.S., the presumptive Republican candidate for president has called for everything from a ban on Muslims entering the country to surveillance of existing Muslim communities. Newt Gingrich, in an interview with Fox News, echoed the same rhetoric.

“Western civilization is in a war,” Gingrich said. “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported.”

Similar feelings were contributed by Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands and Mariusz Blaszczak, the interior minister of Poland’s right-wing government.

Speaking to the complex nature of the problem and the deeply divisive language was Dr. Michael Wright of Portland State’s International and Global Studies Department.

“Yes, there is clearly growing anti-Muslim sentiment in France,” Dr. Wright said in an email interview with the Vanguard. “The thing to look at in that regard is a combination of economics and immigration.”

Wright said that recent austerity measures imposed by European states have had a withering effect on employment opportunities, particularly for the young and immigrant populations. He noted that such an atmosphere can contribute to anti-Muslim backlash.

“Immigrants are easily blamed, and those immigrants—particularly out-of-work young men of foreign descent—are treated as enemies of the society. That creates a breeding ground for exactly the sorts of people who would perpetrate the horrific acts that we have been witnessing,”

In regards to right-wing movements across Europe and North America, Dr. Wright added, “the immigration debate in France, as well as in most European countries with large immigrant populations, are not greatly unlike our own. There is a segment of the population that is vehemently opposed to immigration. Of course, the fact that many of those immigrants are Muslim does put a certain twist on things. The critical question is how large that segment becomes.”

In Nice, the investigation into the motivations of the killer are still underway. He is currently being identified as 31 year old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian emigre. He was unknown to security officials and lived in Nice since 2010. His record includes charges of petty theft and assault, according to Prosecutor Molins. Investigators said that Bouhlel rented the truck he used as a weapon, and on CCTV footage, Bouhlel could be seen surveying the scene of the attack in the days prior.

France observed three days of mourning and a moment of silence was held before the commencement of the Tour de France.

“We wondered about having a race today or not,” said Tour de France organizer Christian Prudhomme. “But in agreement with the state authorities, we believe that the race must go on and we shouldn’t give in to the pressure of people who would like us to change our lifestyle. The Tour de France will go on in sobriety and dignity.”

The defiance in the face of violence is shared by those in Nice, as the beaches and shops have filled back up in the aftermath of Thursday’s attack.

For those concerned about loved ones in France, the best way to contact or locate U.S. citizens living or traveling in France is to contact the U.S. Department of State, Office of Overseas Citizens Services, at 1-888-407-4747 or (202) 647-5225. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also established a hotline for missing person’s inquiries at 011-33-1-45-50-34-60 or you can submit a request to American Red Cross online.