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Bastille Day horror: To the French, Nice attack is like the poppy day bomb in Enniskillen

By Ed Curran

The bells pealed from churches all along the sunny Mediterranean coastline yesterday morning calling the faithful to worship and signifying the third and final day of mourning for the victims of Nice. 

However, life was returning to near normality everywhere after the shock and horror of Bastille Day on the Riviera.

In the village in south-west France where I have holidayed in peace for the past decade, the market stalls were busy as usual but there was little or no talk of what had happened.

Unlike Northern Ireland where violence at its height became an obsessive topic of conversation, people here are strangely detached, as if Nice had little or no direct bearing on their lives at all and they have concluded it couldn’t happen to them.

On the day after Nice I took the train to Montpellier, arguably the youngest, fast-growing city in the south of France, with 400,000 citizens, half under the age of 25.

That evening it was as if nothing had changed other than the cancellation of a major outdoor concert, not because of any security concerns but out of respect for the victims.

The Place de la Comedie, the magnificent pedestrianised square, was packed as usual as were the cafes, tapas bars and restaurants which line the narrow streets and spill out from every corner. As I looked at the crowds of mostly young people I couldn’t but help contrast the undeterred vibrancy of the place with the lockdown atmosphere which pervaded Belfast and so much of Northern Ireland when the threat of terror was never far away.

It seems as if the French see this threat in an entirely different light, no doubt in part because their country is so vast that it takes six hours good driving to go from Nice in the east to Perpignan on the Spanish border to the west.

Whatever President Hollande means by a continued and extended state of emergency was not apparent in Montpellier on Friday night. The streets and squares were packed and there were very few police in sight.

Though clearly security has tightened in Nice after the attack and at transport terminals and areas of France such as Paris and Marseille, where the multi-cultural differences are most in evidence, elsewhere there is little or no sign of any clampdown or reduction in normal life activity.

Perhaps, it is simply not possible to provide the kind of security precautions which Northern Ireland experienced because France with its population spread over such an expansive land, could never be policed in such an intense and restrictive way.

No wonder President Hollande has called up 12,000 reservists — he needs them all and probably many more to provide more overt security.

The coming month will be the biggest test of all for the security of southern France in particular.

At least a million Parisians decamp to the Mediterranean resorts each August. Along with holidaymakers from far beyond France, they throng every beach and attend nightly open air festivities such as concerts and fireworks displays on as large a scale as Bastille Day in Nice.

As I watched the crowds out in force as ever in Montpellier at the weekend, I couldn’t but help think they were either foolhardy or bravely defiant.

It is defiance which defines the French today, deeply hurt that terrorism should blight so barbarically the message of Bastille Day — liberty, equality, fraternity.

In the context of Northern Ireland, the Bastille Day massacre in Nice on such an important day in the French calendar could be likened to the Remembrance Sunday bombing at Enniskillen.

Like so many tens of thousands last week, I watched the Bastille fireworks exploding over the River Herault and stood in the village square as the mayor in his red, white and blue sash laid a wreath, old soldiers and local citizens stood to attention and the local band played a rousing rendering of the La Marseillaise.

It was a scene played out all over France, but just as with Remembrance Sunday in Enniskillen, in future years Bastille Day will have an added reason for commemoration, one that no one could have anticipated or believed could ever happen in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity.

As to whether there is another Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, or even more, lurking in the shadows of this vast country, no one can be sure. 

Given all that is known to date about him and those who carried out the attacks in Paris, it seems likely that Nice will not be the last act of the terrorists.

Totally thwarting such a threat in such a sprawling country seems a well-nigh-impossible task. People may feel apprehensive but they are showing little or no outward sign of unease and are continuing to go about their lives normally in the immediate aftermath of Nice.

It is as if they prefer to run the gauntlet of any threat rather than adjust their lifestyle in any safety conscious way.

The next month on France’s sun-kissed beaches and resorts will be a massive security test for the hard-pressed Hollande. 

It will not be easy given the level of public complacency which even events in Nice do not appear to dent.

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