NICE, FRANCE — The gruesome Bastille Day massacre along this Riviera city’s seaside boulevard was the third major attack in France since January 2015, a disconcerting reality that prompted France’s prime minister to lament that the country “had to learn to live with terrorism.”
But the series of assaults and the repeated states of high alert over the past 19 months have left France’s overlapping and often competing police forces stretched thin and close to exhaustion.
“It’s not possible to be mobilized this way all the time,” Frédéric Lagache, the deputy general secretary of the Alliance Police Union, a union of national police officers, said in an interview. “Our colleagues are tired, mentally and physically.”
Police have also had to deal with occasionally violent protests against a controversial labor law.
“The French security forces are exhausted,” Lagache said. “Concerning Nice, it has to be said that we can’t ensure a level of security of 100 percent.”
Onlookers jeered as national officials appeared in Nice on Monday, with some in the crowd even calling for the resignation of the prime minister, Manuel Valls. Nationwide, 67 percent expressed little confidence in the current government’s capacity to fight terrorism, according to the results of a poll conducted by the IFOP agency and the Figaro newspaper.
French President François Hollande is the country’s least popular head of state on record, with approval ratings that have been consistently below 20 percent for months. A significant element in his government’s unpopularity is its perceived impotence in stopping terrorist attacks.
In essence, few in France are willing to accept the inevitability of nightmarish scenes like that on the night of July 14 in Nice, when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old local man, plowed a 19-ton truck through celebrating crowds on the famed Promande des Anglais, killing 84 people and injuring hundreds more, many of them children.
On the heels of the January 2015 assault on the editorial offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the November 2015 attacks by Islamic State-affiliated militants on a stadium, concert hall and series of cafes across Paris, the Nice attack has thrust the question of national security to the center of public debate with a renewed sense of urgency.
A crucial element in that debate is the question of French police coordination, a source of particular tension after the November attacks, when the first officer to reach the besieged Bataclan concert hall was withdrawn in favor of more elite anti-terrorism forces.
As French news media reported at the time, eliciting tremendous public outrage, one of those dispatched squadrons arrived a half-hour later, while another was apparently never deployed.
France’s National Assembly concluded a bipartisan, six-month investigation into the 2015 attacks this month. It faulted the byzantine nature of France’s domestic security apparatus, which includes “national police” for major urban centers, military-style “gendarmes” for non-urban zones and municipal police throughout the country, mostly responsible for traffic violations and maintaining public order.
Although the national police and the gendarmes are now both run by the Interior Ministry — until a few years ago, the latter was a branch of the Defense Ministry — critics say they still have different authority channels that do not always operate in tandem, as evidenced in the response to the Bataclan siege.
The National Assembly’s report was released July 5 — nine days before the Nice attack, in which police practices have again come under fire, largely for similar reasons.
According to a statement released by the local prefecture, 64 municipal police officers and 42 national police officers were deployed in Nice on the night of July 14 to monitor an expected crowd of 30,000. Additionally, there were 20 military patrols present, five of which belonged to “Operation Sentinel,” a special anti-terrorism squad launched after the January 2015 attacks.
Regardless of these forces, a tractor-trailer was not only able to pass a security barricade designed to keep vehicles away but was also able to continue its murderous rampage for nearly a mile into a crowd confined in a relatively narrow space directly in its path.
As a full picture emerges of police response times and reactions, local authorities have begun criticizing national authorities, and vice versa.
In an interview, Philippe Pradal, who began his tenure as Nice’s mayor last month, was quick to point out that the security coordination for an event like his city’s Bastille Day celebration was dictated by Paris, not by Nice itself.
“Security in France is determined at the level of the state,” he said. “Municipal communities, especially Nice, even with major efforts of local police and things like video surveillance, don’t have the authority to organize their own security measures.”
“For the 14th of July,” he continued, “all that we could have done, we did: putting our camera network and local authorities at the disposal of the national forces.”
The national police — who have, according to Pradal, a greater degree of authority in conflict scenarios than municipal police — interpret the Nice attack differently.
“We do not have the means to protect everything,” Lagache said, adding that “some colleagues work 14 hours a day.”
Security analysts here say that the problem with the Nice attack was twofold: France’s security system tends to focus on Paris at the expense of the provinces and, in general, relies on a counterterrorism strategy designed for short-term events.
“We have military deserts, places where you don’t have anyone,” said Elie Tenenbaum, a security analyst at the French Institute for International Relations , a Paris-based research institute. He referred to the 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, after which the perpetrator was able to elude French authorities for three days.
Nice, Tenenbaum noted, was not exactly the same situation, given its scale and the numbers of police deployed. But, he added, it was certainly not prepared with the same level of caution as Paris, where, for instance, the vast majority of the approximately 10,000 soldiers deployed in Operation Sentinel are based.
For François Heisbourg, a former member of the French presidential white paper commission on defense and national security under both Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande, the “extraordinarily imperfect relationship between the gendarmerie and the police” is ultimately an expression of the government’s “disregard for any form of advice, constructive criticism or attempts to advocate new approaches.”
“When you have a systematic failure,” he said, “you acknowledge it, and you actually try to understand the nature of the systematic failure.”
As Tenenbaum put it: “There’s been this bias toward to short-term stunts, which is good for securing short-term events, which have beginnings and ends. But fighting terrorism is not going to be a short-term event.”
In the aftermath of the Nice attack, Hollande responded by offering another short-term solution: extending the “state of emergency” France has been under since the November attacks, a level of caution he had planned to withdraw next week.
Elie Petit contributed to this report.