After Nice Terror Attack, Far-right Extremists Edge Closer to Elysee Palace

France has endured many terror attacks in its history, but feeling is spreading among public that country has now lost its identity.

People walking a makeshift memorial to the victims of the Bastille Day truck attack near the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, July 21, 2016.
Jean-Pierre Amet/Reuters

NICE – The war memorial to the dead in this southern city, which was built in honor of those who fell during World War I, is a huge Art Deco statue that inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his masterpiece “Guernica” in 1937. The monument is now bedecked with flowers, like all the memorials along the seaside boulevard where a French-Tunisian terrorist killed 84 people on July 14, in one of the worst terror attacks in French history.

A long time has passed since the promenade was first built. It is known as the “English Promenade” (Promenade des Anglais), in honor of those who established it – English aristocrats who spent their vacations in the city in the 19th century. The generous planning unwittingly contributed to the high death toll in the Bastille Day attack: Since the inauguration ceremony in 1928, which was attended by the brother of King George V, the open access between its lanes has been carefully preserved, even after bike lanes were added in recent years.

Armed with a rented 19-ton truck, Mohamed Salmene Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was able to exploit the broad avenue – 20-meters (66 feet) wide – in order to sow death for over 2 kilometers (1.25 miles).

Like many residents of the French Riviera, a lot of Niçois supported the extremist National Front (FN) party of Marine Le Pen long before the latest attack. In the last regional elections, 42 percent of the votes here went to Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the granddaughter of the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Many of them covered the war memorials with flowers, while some brought garbage to the “Trash Memorial” built by FN activists at the spot where Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was shot and killed by police.

Over a week after the attack, people continue to gather around the scene of the crime. Some visit out of curiosity, some in sorrow, most out of a sense of helplessness and bewilderment. Many of those who lit candles to remember the 84 victims – who included 10 children and 35 Muslims – were here on the night of the attack and were saved only by chance. Some say they could have died, while most use the rather strange formulation heard after previous terror attacks in France: “I should have died,” they say time and again to the police, journalists and themselves.

While the survivors try to return to routine, all of France is still asking what happened before Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was killed. A commission of inquiry will have to decide between two possibilities: A failure of the local municipal police, which is under the responsibility of the right-wing parties; or a failure by the national police, which is the responsibility of Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and President François Hollande (both from the ruling Socialist Party).

A boy looks at a pile of garbage placed where police shot dead Mohamed Salmene Lahouaiej-Bouhlel on July 14, 2016.
Francois Mori/AP

In response to a question by the daily Le Monde about the police’s preparedness for the threat of terror attacks, Cazeneuve uttered a sentence that encapsulates the complexity of the challenge he faces: “Whatever happens, France needs to remain France.” He intended to emphasize his opposition to the cancellation of public events and restrictions on the personal freedoms of French citizens of Arab origin. But in practice, he merely amplified the nation’s anxieties, which were planted deep in the heart of the French long before the Nice attack: For many voters, from both the left and right, France has not been the same France for a long time.

It’s hard to list the entire wave of terror attacks France has suffered in its long history – from the assassination of President Marie François Sadi Carnot in Lyon by an Italian anarchist in 1894, to the daily stabbing attacks during the Algerian War, through the subway attacks by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in the 1990s. So what has caused the feeling that things are different this time, and that a real danger exists that France is losing its way?

The debate over this question is far from over, but one of the consequences was the semi-secret section of the law on working hours, which the coalition government pushed through last Thursday. This law is what led to mass protests and strikes all spring, and which seemingly deals only with economic issues: Providing employers with the ability to fire workers or employ people more easily than at present. But the clause introduced by the government at the last moment states that an employer can institute internal rules that limit the visibility of beliefs in the workplace, according to the Republic’s principles of neutrality in religious affairs.

The clause does not define “belief,” but from now on private employers – as well as the public sector – can ban employees from coming to work with a head covering (or kippa, or with a displayed cross – although it’s clear to all that the target is Muslims). The law was passed a day after the country’s state of emergency was extended. These are two steps – both of which were forced on the government by external factors – arising from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

The closer we get to next year’s presidential elections, the more French citizens declare that they intend to vote for populist parties whose platforms have no connection to reality. Thus, the National Front is just part of the problem for the traditional mainstream parties: Almost half of those who voted for Hollande and the socialists in 2012 say they intend to vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Party (PG) next year; he can best be described as Le Pen’s counterpart on the left.

The traditionally right-wing Republicans Party’s fear of losing its power because of the rise of Le Pen is similar to the Socialist Party’s fear of disappearing electorally as a result of the rise of Mélenchon. This is what triggered the banning of head coverings in the workplace. The section was written by a member of parliament from the extreme left, in exactly the same way the state of emergency laws were a demand of the extreme right.

The National Front and Left Party, which are seeming opposites but in practice have almost identical platforms on economic and foreign-affairs issues, have been controlling the political discourse for months.

The extreme right has strengthened so much in the polls over the past week that its leadership has decided to remain silent, turning down any requests to appear on television. The more pictures of the attack are broadcast, the greater the far right’s chances of electoral success – regardless of its proposed practical solutions.

So it’s no accident that the largest danger threatening the Republic is not Islamic terror attacks, but the complete radicalization of French society – so much so that a violent confrontation between the extreme right and French citizens of Muslim origin is possible, the head of the French counterintelligence services warned last week.

Most commentators continue to claim that Marine Le Pen has no chance of being elected as the next president of France next May – partly because her populist economic platform scares off archetypal right-wing voters. But this is the time to wonder how much Le Pen actually needs these voters. The difference between left and right is giving way to a new, much more sensitive division: Between those who believe France remains France, and those who do not.