Following Nice Attack, France Wonders Whether Hollande Is Suited to Lead the Crisis

Prime Minister Manuel Valls declares three days of national mourning; calls on the country to stand united, saying France 'has to learn to live with terror.'

French President Francois Hollande makes a televised address in Paris early Friday July 15, 2016 following a terror attack in Nice.
AP

France "has to learn to live with terror," Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the nation on Friday morning, only hours after a person driving a truck mowed down people in the streets of the southern city of Nice, killing at least 84 and injuring hundreds.

French authorities are describing the massacre as a "terror incident," though no organization has yet taken responsibility for the act. The motives of the perpetrator – a 31-year-old Frenchman born in Tunisia – are currently unknown. He was shot dead by police after his rampage though Nice.

"Times have changed," Valls told his countrymen. "We need to stand united in the face of terrorism and maintain our composure."

The prime minister declared three days of mourning throughout the country in memory of the Nice massacre, beginning on Saturday.

He also said that the French Assembly would discuss the country's current state of emergency, which has been in effect since the terror attacks in Paris last November and was due to expire at the end of this month. President Francois Hollande said earlier that the emergency would be extended for another three months.

Both Hollande and Valls are expected in Nice, later on Friday. Hollande, who was in Avignon at the time of the tragedy, returned to Paris shortly after instead of heading directly for Nice.

That decision has led to criticism of the president in certain quarters, as well as questions as to whether Hollande is the right man to lead the country at a time of such deep crisis..

Despite the number of victims and France's lack of experience with car-ramming attacks, the picture became clear quite quickly: Less than an hour after the terror attack in Nice, authorities were able to inform the public of a multi-casualty car-ramming attack and warn them to stay indoors until the incident had been declared over, even though the assailant was already dead,

The blood-curdling announcement by the district's deputy commander, of "dozens dead and apparently hundreds wounded," caught French President Francois Hollande on his way back to Paris from the famous Avignon theater festival, where he was the guest of honor.

In light of the incident's monstrous dimensions, the president's hasty return to Paris actually seems to have been a mistake. Avignon is very near to Nice and, with hindsight, that would appear to have been a better destination for the president than the command room in the capital.

After all, it comes to this: How can the French leadership convey a sense of strength and leadership, even in the face of the terrible tragedy that occurred.

From the beginning of the incident, television networks highlighted the striking contrast between the innocence of the victims – families and tourists standing along Nice's well-known promenade to watch the famous fireworks display marking Bastille Day – and the cold and calculated plan of the assailant, whose clear target was to kill as many people as possible.

With shocking images and amateur videos flooding the social networks, a message to calm the nation was needed.

When the French interior minister announced that he was making his way to Nice – a city 1,000 kilometers away from Paris – the president's team understood that it needed to change the plan and announced that the president would first go to Paris and then return to the scene of the attack.

Every French child could understand that thr president's movements amounted to illogical zigzagging, both politically and geographically. And so, France is again wondering whether Hollande is the right man to lead the country at a time of such deep crisis.

A deadly and brutal attack on Bastille Day in one of the most well-known tourist sites in the world, demands an answer. Its first element is the French public's trust – in its leader and its power to fight back. There's no doubt that public preparedness was high – Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced three times this past month that many attacks had been thwarted, but it was possible there would be attacks that the police would not manage to prevent.

Now is the time when the public needs to believe that its leaders know who the enemy is and how to fight it. In Avignon, in Nice, in Paris or wherever he chooses to be, Hollande will have to tell his nation that he has the answers, and his power of persuasion must fit the depth of the tragedy that France reached tonight.