Paris, France – People across France awakened two new realities on Friday – the start of a new month-long national lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus and an alert on “terror” that has been raised to the highest level.
Security fears intensified on Thursday morning when three people were killed in the Notre-Dame basilica in the southern city of Nice in what French President Macron described as an “Islamic terrorist attack”.
People across the country were in shock as they grieved.
“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 while he was celebrating mass in his church in Normandy.
Hamel said she had difficulty understanding why the attacker behind Thursday’s violence, a 21-year-old Tunisian national, aimed “at people who pray, do no harm to anyone and are peaceful in this church”.
Among the victims was Vincent Loques, 55, father of two daughters, who, according to the local broadcaster France-Bleu, was the sacristan of the church in charge of its sacred objects.
A 60-year-old woman who, like Loques, died on the spot was not named.
Another, according to the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, was a 44-year-old mother of three from Brazil. French media said her name was Simone. She had studied cooking in Nice and helped poor communities in the area. Simone managed to get out of the church into a nearby café, but later died of her wounds, the nice mayor Christian Estrosi told reporters on site.
“Tell my children that I love them”, Simone is said to have said before she died.
Simone Barreto Silva, described by the French media as one of the victims of a fatal knife attack in the Notre Dame church in Nice, can be seen in this flyer image that Reuters distributed on October 30, 2020 [Simone Barreto Silva/Handout via Reuters]Thursday’s attack opened old wounds for the people of Nice.
In July 2016, a man rammed a truck through a crowd lined up on the city’s main promenade for Bastille Day celebrations. 86 people were killed and 458 others injured.
Father Cyril Geley, 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, the words seem very weak compared to what we are experiencing.”
Speaking outside church on Thursday, a gloomy Macron said he had deployed 3,000 to 7,000 soldiers 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, especially on France’s political law, said that was not enough.
“We can no longer afford to just say ‘unity’,” said Estrosi, a former MP for The Republicans.
“We need action,” he said, adding that he wanted to change the French constitution to fight the “jihadists”.
Republican MP Eric Ciotti called for a “French style Guantanamo” to imprison suspected fighters.
A nun prays in front of candles and flowers dedicated to the victims of the fatal knife attack at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, France, on October 30, 2020 [Eric Gaillard/Reuters]The far right was also quick to politicize the event.
“Islamism is an ideology that wages war against us,” Marine Le Pen, chairman of the far-right national rally, told RMC radio. “Everyone, associations, structures, men, women, who support this ideology, which they spread: they must be put out of the way.”
On Thursday evening demonstrators from the right-wing extremist group Generation Identity took to the streets in Nice and shouted “Islam, get out of Europe”.
The demonstration raised concerns about a new series of indigenous culture wars.
“[Generation Identity] tries to get supporters from the emotions that are widespread in the population, “Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist, writer and filmmaker, told Al Jazeera.
“All separatism must be condemned,” wrote Olivier Faure, leader of the French Socialist Party (SP), on Twitter, referring to a video about the march of the far-right group. “They provoke each other, each becomes the fuel of the other.”
Shortly after Thursday’s attack in Nice, a man was shot dead by police after threatening a North African shopkeeper. Police told Al Jazeera that they are investigating media reports that the attacker is a member of Generation Identity.
On September 25, 2020, people approached security guards at the site of an incident near the former offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France [Charles Platiau/Reuters]The violence in Nice was the third in a series of recent attacks that rocked France last month.
Two weeks ago, teacher Samuel Paty, 47, was beheaded in broad daylight after showing caricatures of Prophet Muhammad to students during a civic lesson on freedom of expression.
Last month, two people were stabbed to death outside the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo after the magazine republished similar cartoons by the Prophet that were considered offensive to many Muslims.
While Muslims have condemned these attacks, they fear crackdowns against Muslim organizations and places of worship and are angry about renewed public support for the right to display cartoons, which frequently suggest Islam and “terrorism “Are interconnected.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Macron said Islam was in “crisis” around the world as he outlined plans for a law to prevent what he called “Islamist separatism”.
The proposed law has been harshly criticized by 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 controls” on his attitude towards Muslims and Islam.
Macron’s comments and support for the right to display the cartoons have sparked an anti-France street protest movement in many Muslim countries, along with calls to boycott French goods.
As those protests continued on Friday, Macron held an emergency meeting with senior ministers on Friday to discuss new security measures.
In Nice, a provisional monument made of flowers and candles was erected in front of the basilica to honor the three victims.
One of the bouquets reads: “Nice is still standing. Rest in peace.”