NICE, FRANCE — With this coastal city reeling from the Bastille Day attack by one of its Tunisian-born residents, one sentiment is growing stronger and stronger: Keep the immigrants out.
Across France, it is voiced by the far-right National Front party, which counts Nice as a stronghold. It is embraced by the center-right politicians dogging French President François Hollande ahead of elections next year. And though Hollande has preached tolerance and unity every time terrorism strikes France, his allies are also trying to tamp down immigration.
Leaders of Nice’s Muslim community say they fear that a backlash could make people such as the attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, even more disconnected from French society, sharpening the risk of more attacks. But there are now few mainstream voices in France’s political establishment advocating a welcoming policy toward migrants. Hollande’s center-left Socialist party appears likely to limp to a third-place finish in the presidential race next year behind the far-right National Front, which long had ties to Holocaust deniers.
The dynamic comes as voters around the world seek to bar the way to immigrants amid persistent economic challenges and wars in the Middle East that have displaced millions of women, children and men. British voters last month voted to sever ties with the European Union in a referendum widely seen as motivated by fears over migration. The presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, plans to build a wall to keep out Mexicans. And just over France’s coastline border with Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League is also strengthening.
“Islamism has hit again,” said Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 26, the granddaughter of the founder of the National Front who represents an area near Nice in the French Parliament and is a rising star of the far right. “It is possible to assimilate individuals, but not to assimilate an entire people, who bring with them their culture and their religion,” she said in a video statement after the Thursday attack killed 84 people and wounded 256.
After three mass attacks in France in just 18 months, solidarity and national unity have been replaced by raw anger, with many here directing their frustration toward France’s leaders and the nation’s large Muslim community, even though there were many Muslim victims in the Nice attack. Hollande has appealed for tolerance — but a recent opinion poll found that just 12 percent of French voters support his performance as president.
“We have been capable of unity, of cohesion,” Hollande said Friday after visiting Nice. He called for France to “be stronger than those who wish us harm.”
Many in Nice question how security was so weak that Bouhlel was able to use his rented truck to cut a bloody path of terror over more than a mile of a crowded holiday seafront. On Sunday, people were piling rocks and angry messages on the spot on the Promenade des Anglais where Bouhlel was shot dead by police, a sharp break from previous commemorations that have centered on teary memories of victims rather than raw aggression toward attackers. Amid a crowd of onlookers, one man spat on the rocks and cursed Bouhlel’s memory.
“People need to get out their hate,” shrugged one police officer who was standing near the crowd.
Residents of Nice who have North African backgrounds say they can feel the anger, which many say has been growing for years but has become sharply worse with each attack in the past 18 months. Many of the attackers were French-born children of immigrants who complained that they were seen as too North African in France and too French in their parents’ home countries. Bouhlel, who emigrated from Tunisia in 2009 or 2010, according to his father, was an exception in that he was relatively new to France.
“People look at us differently,” said Myriam Brini, 27, who was born in Nice to Tunisian immigrants and sells croissants and pastries at a bakery just around the corner from the National Front’s local headquarters. She said she used to feel more integrated into French society. “But in the last six or seven years, people look at you like, ‘Hey, that’s an Arab!’ ”
“I have a little daughter, and it’s not the world I hoped for her,” Brini said.
In the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region, which includes Nice, the National Front captured 41 percent of the vote in first-round regional elections in December before losing the second round after opponents combined forces to defeat them. The result was a setback for anti-immigrant forces, but it was still a striking sign of the fast-growing appeal of the party’s message at a time when mainstream leaders are historically unpopular.
The southern coast of France is especially fertile territory for the National Front, since it is home to descendants of the Pieds-Noirs, the French-Algerian colonists who were expelled to France during Algeria’s bloody war of independence that ended in 1962.
The attacks “give a legitimacy to all the ideas of the National Front that they’ve been promoting for 20 years,” said Stéphane Wahnich, who co-authored a book analyzing National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric. “With this kind of attack, a lot of people who were hesitating to vote for the National Front will do it.”
Even short of ballot-box triumphs, the National Front has already spread its hard-line ideas about immigration and Islam into the mainstream. In Nice, the local government fought a years-long battle against a new mosque on the city’s western outskirts before losing last month. National leaders have tried to put tough limits on the number of migrants and refugees the nation has to accept under a European Union quota system imposed last year after more than a million people fleeing war and poverty washed onto Europe’s shores.
“Our major fear is that National Front ideas get a majority inside the Socialists and the Republicans,” the two mainstream parties of France, said Otmane Aissaoui, president of the Union of Muslims of the Alpes-
Maritimes, the region’s Muslim umbrella organization. “All parties are playing the Islamist card.”
In the wake of the attacks, anti-immigrant attitudes are coming even from those who say they cannot vote for the National Front because of its fascist-
“We are getting more and more racist, but unfortunately we need to,” said Stéphanie van Cappellen, who was working at a deserted cafe in central Nice on Sunday. “You see the immigrants here, they just show up and they get a job, an apartment. People here don’t get that.”
She said she believed that the vast majority of French residents with immigrant backgrounds were peaceful. But “people were laughing after the attack,” she said of Muslim residents of Nice, although there is no evidence that was the case. “How can they do that?”
With such attitudes common among French voters, “the politicians are completely liberated,” said Virginie Martin, a political analyst who has studied the rise of the National Front in southern France. In the eyes of many voters, she said, “it’s like the National Front was right.”
Elie Petit contributed to this report.