PARIS — The French government has faced severe criticism for security flaws that may have contributed to the deadly terrorist attack in Nice this month. Now, the outrage over the issue has intensified, with a local security official claiming authorities are attempting a coverup.
The latest chapter in this unfolding drama began Sunday, when Sandra Bertin, who runs Nice’s video surveillance network, told the weekly Journal du Dimanche newspaper that Interior Ministry officials “pressured” her to doctor a report on policing in Nice on the night of July 14, when 84 people were killed in the third major terrorist attack on French soil in less than two years.
The local official said she was urged to “make clear that we also saw the national police at two points” on the Nice promenade where they were not visible. The Interior Ministry fiercely denied the claim.
This revelation came days after Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve admitted that no national police units had been patrolling the entrance to Nice’s seaside promenade, where Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old local resident of Tunisian origin, plowed a 19-ton rented truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day.
Cazeneuve previously had said that national police units had been at the entrance. Such units are usually better equipped to deal with major attacks than municipal police units.
The Interior Ministry maintains that national police units were elsewhere along the Promenade des Anglais.
“I replied that I would only write what I had seen,” Bertin told the Journal du Dimanche, adding that she was “harassed for nearly an hour” as Interior Ministry officials ordered her to enter positions of national police that she did not actually see in recorded video footage.
In Paris, Cazeneuve denied those allegations and threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against Bertin.
As the Interior Ministry said in a statement: “It would be very helpful if Mme. Sandra Bertin would be interviewed by investigators and could produce the identities and titles of the people who approached her, the emails she references and their contents.”
The Interior Ministry declined to provide additional information regarding Cazeneuve’s potential lawsuit.
France has been under a state of emergency since Nov. 13, when 130 people were killed in coordinated assaults across Paris. But despite the government’s assumption of extraordinary powers to pursue alleged terrorists, the same cell of extremists that targeted Paris in November attacked Brussels in March.
The attack on Nice has caused the government’s approval ratings to plummet: According to a poll conducted by the IFOP agency last week, 67 percent of French citizens have little to no confidence in the authorities’ ability to fight terrorism. When France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, appeared in Nice for a ceremony after the attack, some people in the crowd called him a “murderer.”
France’s municipal and national police forces have different chains of command and do not necessarily coordinate in advance of a large event like a Bastille Day celebration.
“The fact that there’s this fragmentation is obviously something that lets these things happen,” Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, said in an interview.
France’s far-right National Front party, led by the outspoken Marine Le Pen, has strongly criticized the government’s perceived security failures.
The party said in a statement following Bertin’s accusation: “The French have a right to the truth — were security measures sufficient, and were they consistent with anticipated plans? Were there any failures that night? What is the Interior Ministry trying to hide?”