- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2017

NICE, France — It was almost a year before Emilie Petitjean had the courage to return to the spot where her 10-year-old son Romain was hit and killed by the large white truck that an Islamic State-inspired terrorist drove into Bastille Day revelers on the vast beachside promenade here last July 14.

On what would have been Romain’s 11th birthday this May, Ms. Petitjean says she finally built up the nerve to walk along the sun-drenched stretch of pavement — the same stretch where she’d once taught her boy to ride a bicycle, just as she’d been taught there as a girl.

“It was too painful. Too many images would come back to me every time I got close,” Ms. Petijean said in an interview this week as she and others here prepared to pass the first anniversary of the senseless horror that stole the lives of 86 people and injured more than 400 one year ago.

“I saw a lot of bodies that night. I saw a crowd, screaming, crying, covered with blood and firemen panicking because there were too many victims,” she said. But just as this southern French city will attempt on Friday, Ms. Petijean says she found some closure when she finally stood in the spot where Romain died.

The pain is still deep though and it courses beneath the surface here, just as it does in other French towns and cities, including Paris, that have been the targets of attacks orchestrated by the Islamic State or, as was the case in Nice, inspired by the terror group also known as ISIS and ISIL.

While France was rocked in November 2015 by a coordinated assault that killed 130 people in the heart of Paris, authorities say the Nice massacre was a kind of watershed moment that began what has since been macabre wave of simplified terror strikes in several Western European nations.

The attack’s timing also cut uniquely deep into the collective French psyche because it occurred on Bastille Day — France’s equivalent to America’s Fourth of July, when the whole nation gathers to celebrate the ideals of the republic: liberty, equality and fraternity.

Islamic State operatives claimed responsibility for the attack, but authorities never pinned down an explicit connection to the group and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the 31-year-old Tunisian resident of France who rented and plowed a 19-ton cargo truck into crowds of families just after the annual fireworks over Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was killed in a hail of police gunfire, leaving several questions lingering about around the massacre. Officials said he had a history of mental illness and was “radicalized” only recently before the attack. The questions cast a pall over this year’s more muted festivities.

“Maybe next year,” Nice Mayor Philippe Pradal told The Washington Times, suggesting fireworks just wouldn’t fit with the sadness that will grip the city on Friday night, when all but small sections of the promenade will be closed.

Visitors will place plaques on the ground in remembrance of the victims. The Nice orchestra will play, and a moment of silence will be held at 10:34 p.m., the exact time of the attack.

Nice may be the most vibrant Cote d’Azur city, known for its beaches, its colorful and dense architecture and the diverse ethnic mix of its 340,000 residents and seasonal visitors from around the globe.

The attack touched that diversity at its core, said Mr. Pradal, who noted that the victims were from 18 nations other than France, including the United States, and spanned a variety of religious backgrounds. Many were Muslims or from predominantly Muslim countries.

“It wasn’t by chance this happened on July 14th. It was meant as an attack on the values of the republic, and amongst those values is fraternity,” the deputy mayor said, adding that the city has since scrambled to hold public events aimed at preventing the incident from fueling social divisions.

Alienated Muslims?

Roughly 8 percent of France’s 67 million people are Muslim. But in Nice, where many are of North African descent, the number is reported to be closer to 40 percent.

Public condemnations of terrorism from Muslim leaders in Nice and other French cities have done little to alleviate societal friction spurred by the nation’s slow-burning internal war against Islamic State and tensions between religious practice and the relentlessly secular nature of the French state.

The French government has long been criticized for failing to integrate Muslims into society. The result is what authorities fear is a cohort of alienated Muslim youths open the lure of extremist propaganda.

In interviews with The Times last year, several moderate French Muslims worried that the situation was being made worse by harsh government crackdowns in the wake of the Nice and Paris attacks. Undercover French police prowl the streets of major cities, and authorities have carried out thousands of home raids under an ongoing “state of emergency” decree that allows searches without court warrants.

The government says the moves are necessary to contain the Islamic State threat. Muslim rights groups say the crackdown, coupled with “Islamophobic” rhetoric from some political leaders, plays directly into the hands of extremists by further alienating the largest population of Muslims in Europe.

Some security analysts say the government’s approach is flawed — that not enough is being done to confront Salafi, Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood-associated imams preaching at mosques in France.

“If you want to be efficient when fighting terrorism, you should dry the Islamic tank,” said Eric Denece, who heads the French Center for Intelligence Studies, a Paris-based think tank.

“We need a new law to declare those three specific Islamic groups as illegal,” said Mr. Denece, adding that the government’s inaction on the matter fuels frustration among French nationalists and explains the rise in popularity of far-right, nationalist political leaders such as Marine Le Pen.

‘Hit in our flesh’

Mr. Pradal said Nice has expanded anti-extremism programs in schools with the aim of making children of all backgrounds “more sensitive” to the indicators of radicalization.

While he also touted efforts to bring the region’s religious leaders together to promote peace, the mayor was more cautious on the question of whether the government should press Muslim leaders to join in public condemnations of terrorism.

“It is not our responsibility to ask the Muslim communities to condemn such actions,” he said.

Nice, he said, has added 130 officers to its 750-strong police force and pumped more than $20 million into various upgrades, including new camera systems at schools and “panic buttons” that administrators can press to alert authorities in the event of an attack.

Hundreds of fresh steel bollards now line beachside promenades to guard against vehicles plowing into pedestrians again, said Mr. Pradal, who defended the national government’s state of emergency decree on grounds that terrorists “have decided to declare war against us.”

During the French Revolution, there was “a phrase that said, ‘No freedom for the opponents of freedom,’” Mr. Pradal said. “We’re not there yet, but one must accept that when you are in war, you have to accept certain restrictions to your freedoms to be able to restore those freedoms.”

“We have been hit in our flesh,” he said.

Roughly half of those killed in the Bastille Day attack were from Nice or nearby towns, such as La Trinite, where Ms. Petitjean said her son Romain once came home from elementary school in 2015 asking about terrorism after teachers led a discussion about the Islamic State attacks in Paris.

The boy, whose last name was Knetch — his parents were separated and he he had the name of his father — was “was worried that something could happen to his little brother or to his family,” Ms. Petitjean said. “I told him we did not have to worry about that because we lived in a little town — that something like that might happen one day in Nice, a city, but not where we lived.”

“He was worried that something could happen to his little brother or to his family,” Ms. Petitjean said. “I told him we did not have to worry about that because we lived in a little town — that something like that might happen one day in Nice, a city, but not where we lived.”

“I have this feeling now that I never should have told him that,” she said.

While she now seeks to help others through a victims organization she runs called Promenade Des Anges, Ms. Petitjean said her own sense of loss is no less crushing than it was a year ago. “Now it is more difficult every day,” she said, “because I miss him very much, and I miss him every day a little bit more.”

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