And that was how the horror came to my doorstep. To tell you the truth, like many people who live in the provinces – a somewhat disparaging term used to refer to the rest of France that exists outside of Paris and its surrounds – I thought terrorist attacks were mainly a concern for those in the capital.
On July 14, this certainty was blown apart by the sad and harsh reality: 84 people of various nationality and beliefs, among them dozens of children, died due to the actions of a lunatic on the Promenade des Anglais, the “Malecon” of the city of Nice, in the south-east of France.
I say “lunatic” and not “terrorist” because there is no proof that the author of the massacre had anything to do with the criminal networks associated with al Qaeda or Islamic State. Instead, everything till now points in the other direction.
But one could easily believe this was the case, as Nice, the summer capital, has also become known more recently as a fertile recruitment ground for future jihadists willing to go to Syria or Iraq.
France's interior ministry said it is estimated that 10% of those who each year leave France to join the ranks of the terrorist networks flourishing in the Middle East come from the department of Alpes-Maritimes (whose capital is Nice).
Behind the image of “glamour” that the capital of the French Riviera is usually associated with, Nice is in reality one of the most unequal cities in the region.
If one dares to go beyond the Nice that everyone knows from postcards, and avoids the well-off neighbourhoods located on the banks that dominate the local view, you will see that in further out neighbourhoods like L'Ariane, Les Moulins or Bon Voyage, there is a smouldering cauldron.
There, precarious economic conditions mix together with racial discrimination, in terms of access to work and places for leisure, and the majority of the population originally come from the Maghreb or Sub-Saharan Africa.
Until now, social tensions generated by this situation have been managed by different municipal authorities — all of them solidly aligned with the right since the 1940s — through the intensive use of patronage methods based on the co-option of neighbourhood elites. This strategy, however, has had limits placed on it by the saturation of the public sphere with a racist discourse. This discourse had, until recent years, made Nice, in political-electoral terms, the capital of the right, a fact recognised as such by the rest of the country.
There has always been an important conservative vote here, one that today is capitalised upon by The Republicans (the party of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy) and the xenophobic National Front of Marine Le Pen, whose support continues to grow. Under pressure, right-wing conservatives have assumed a discourse that is increasingly hostile towards “foreigners”.
The figure of “internal enemy”, previously attributed to Jewish people or Communists, is now associated with Muslims, and Arabs and Blacks in general. This tendency, far from limiting itself to Nice, can also be felt across France and the rest of Europe.
This helps us understand a strange paradox: while the ultra-rightist Anders Behring Breivik was widely seen as a schizophrenic when, in 2011, he killed 77 young socialists in Norway, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was not given the same benefit of the doubt.
When Lahouaiej Bouhlel ran over nearly 100 people, French journalists quickly viewed the killings as an “Islamic” assault.
Discriminated against in a systematic manner, the Arab and Muslim community is also seen as a homogenous body that is foreign to the nation. The terrorists are presented as the visible face of the danger that Islam represents to the “vivre ensemble” (living together) that characterises French society.
That is why the actions of Lahouaiej Bouhlel are viewed — with a normality that is frightening - as a “terrorist” act that seeks nothing less than to put in danger the French “savoir-vivre” (way of life).
The extreme horror experienced on the Promenade des Anglais has placed the city of Nice in mourning. “We have to resist,” say the municipal and national authorities, but it is worth asking: “Against what? Against who?”
Almost at once, our leaders proposed to extend for a further three months a state of emergency that, since it was first decreed last November, has only been used to repress trade unions opposed to a government labour reform that goes against the rights of workers.
They also announced that they want to intensify French intervention in Syria and Iraq — an intervention that, until now, has only generated more instability in the zone and exposed the French civilian population to reprisals.
Doctors tend to say that there is nothing worse than treating an illness with the wrong medication. What we have tried until now – less civil liberties and more war — has not worked. Yet they propose we continue with them in a context where Muslims, including those born and raised in France, appear as the ideal scapegoat to legitimise what no one would accept in other times.
[Slightly abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Translated by Federico Fuentes.]