Paris, France – People across France woke up to two new realities on Friday – the start of a new, one-month national lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus and a “terror” alert brought to its highest level.
On Thursday morning, security fears were heightened when three people were killed at the Notre-Dame Basilica in the southern city of Nice, in what French President Macron called an “Islamic terrorist attack”.
People across the country were in shock as they mourned.
“It is a pain that only those who have suffered this terrorism can feel,” Roseline Hamel told French radio France Info.
In 2016, Hamel’s brother Father Jacques Hamel was beheaded by two attackers as he celebrated mass at his church in Normandy.
Hamel said she struggled to understand why the assailant behind Thursday’s violence, a 21-year-old Tunisian national, set his target “on people who pray, who do not harm anyone, are serene at peace in this church”.
The victims included 55-year-old Vincent Loques, a father to two daughters who was the church’s sacristan, in charge of its holy objects, according to local broadcaster France-Bleu.
A 60-year-old woman, who like Loques, died on the spot, has not been named.
Another was a 44-year-old mother-of-three from Brazil, according to Brazil’s Foreign Ministry. French media said her name was Simone. She had studied cooking in Nice and helped poor communities in the area. Simone had managed to make it out of the church into a nearby cafe, but later died from her wounds, Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi told reporters at the scene.
“Tell my children I love them,” Simone is reported to have said, before dying.
Thursday’s attack reopened old wounds for the people of Nice.
In July 2016, a man rammed a truck through a crowd of people lined up on the city’s main promenade for Bastille Day celebrations, killing 86 and injuring 458 others.
Father Cyril Geley, the vicar general of the Diocese of Nice told Le Monde: “A church is a place of peace where violence is not the order of the day.
“Our religious buildings are no longer places of refuge, they are targets … we are all stunned, words seem very weak compared to what we are experiencing.”
Speaking in front of the church on Thursday, a sombre Macron said he was deploying 3,000-7,000 troops to protect the country’s places of worship and urged people of all religions to “unite” and “not give in to the spirit of division”.
But many, particularly on France’s political right, said that was not enough.
“We can no longer afford to simply say ‘unity’,” said Estrosi, a former MP with The Republicans, a right-wing party.
“We need acts,” he said, adding he wanted to modify France’s constitution to fight against the “jihadists”.
Eric Ciotti, deputy of The Republicans, called for a “French-style Guantanamo” to lock up suspected fighters.
The far right was also quick to politicise the event.
“Islamism is an ideology that makes war on us,” Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, told RMC radio. “All those, associations, structures, men, women, who support this ideology, who spread it: they must be put out of harm’s way.”
On Thursday night, protesters linked to the far-right group Generation Identity took the streets in Nice, shouting “Islam, get out of Europe”.
The demonstration raised concerns about a new set of homegrown culture wars.
“[Generation Identity] is trying to gain supporters out of the emotion that is spread across the population,” Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist, writer and filmmaker told Al Jazeera.
“All separatisms must be condemned,” Olivier Faure, head of France’s Socialist Party (SP) wrote on Twitter linking to a video of the far-right group’s march. “They provoke each other, each one becoming the fuel of the other.”
Shortly after Thursday’s attack in Nice, a man was shot dead by police after he threatened a North African shopkeeper. Police told Al Jazeera they were investigating media reports suggesting the attacker was a member of Generation Identity.
The violence in Nice was the third in a string of recent attacks that have jolted France over the past month.
Two weeks ago, 47-year-old teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in broad daylight after he showed students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a civics lesson about freedom of expression.
Last month, two people were stabbed outside the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, after the magazine republished similar cartoons of the prophet, seen as offensive to many Muslims.
While Muslims have condemned these attacks, they fear being unfairly targeted by a crackdown on Muslim organisations and places of worship, and are upset by the renewed public support for the right to show the caricatures, which often suggest Islam and “terrorism” are linked.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Macron said Islam was in “crisis” globally as he outlined plans for a law designed to prevent what he called “Islamist separatism”.
The proposed law has been met with sharp criticism from Muslims in France and the rest of the world.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan, who often clashes with his French counterpart, recently said Macron needed “mental checks” over his attitude towards Muslims and Islam.
Macron’s comments and support for the right to show the caricatures have led to an anti-France street protest movement across many Muslim countries, alongside calls to boycott French goods.
As those protests continued on Friday, Macron was holding an emergency meeting with senior ministers on Friday to discuss new security measures.
In Nice, a makeshift memorial of flowers and candles was set up outside the basilica to honour the three victims.
One of the bouquets reads: “Nice is still standing. Rest in peace.”
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