Bastille Day horror: France bitterly divided

Rest in peace: Flowers and candles mark the places where bodies fell in Nice. © PA

The recent Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terrorist attacks in France both united the country. The massacre in Nice has done the opposite this weekend. Politics has rarely been more rancorous. Why?

They came for a night of music and fireworks: a great national celebration. But 84 people, including ten children, are dead after yet another terrorist outrage.

French police arrested a man and a woman yesterday as new details suggested the truck driver in Nice may have been radicalised shortly before committing his attack; he was described by Islamist militant group IS (Islamic State) as one of its ‘soldiers’. The arrests come a day after IS claimed responsibility for the Bastille Day massacre on a website and a radio station with ties to the jihadist group.

This is the third major Islamist terrorist atrocity in France in 18 months, following the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the November Paris attacks (which included the Bataclan theatre killings). In the eyes of many, France is at war. The army has summoned 12,000 reservists and called on ‘willing French patriots’ to join up as the country ‘learns to live with terrorism’.

Many commentators have described the reasons France enrages Islamic fundamentalists. First, It has banned the public wearing of the niqab and introduced a ‘charter for secularity’ in schools, sparking a collision with many younger Muslims.

Second, more than any other country in the West, it represents liberty, licence and secularism. Yesterday a writer declared, ‘France symbolises to the wider world a national template for gaiety. Physical and aesthetic pleasures — food, wine, sun, sex, music, art — are taken seriously’.

A Parisian predicted, ‘Bataclan brought us together – but this attack in Nice will drive a wedge into France’. Analysts describe a country fiercely and perhaps irreparably divided; there is an increasing distrust between the country’s 6m Muslims and the rest of the population. They describe a country caught in a fatal loop of fear and recrimination, where each side’s grievances are fed from the existence of the other.

Only last week, Patrick Calvar, head of the General Directorate for Internal Security (the French equivalent of MI5 in the UK) said that growing tensions between the ‘extreme Right and the Muslim world’ have pushed France to the ‘verge of a civil war’.

There is a presidential election in the country next year. Marine Le Pen, head of the anti-immigration National Front Party, may come to power.

Can tolerance survive?

Of course, say some. ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ has been the national motto for 225 years. It is not about to be destroyed by a handful of terrorists.

Don’t be too confident, say others. The rise of Islamic extremism shows no signs of abating. Calvar says that France is on the verge of becoming ‘an uncontrollable country where groups take up arms and hand out their own justice’.

You Decide

  1. In ten years’ time, will France be a more tolerant country, or less?
  2. Do you expect there to be a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom in the coming years?


  1. Imagine if Mohammed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was alive. You can ask him one question. What would you ask, and why? Discuss your answers with the rest of the class.
  2. Research political parties in France and their backgrounds. What do you think will happen when the country votes for its next president in just under one year’s time?

Some People Say...

“Thought is the first casualty of terror.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This is very scary.
It is understandable to be scared, but the important thing is not to change the way you live your life. Do not stop going to concerts or sports events because of the fear that terrorists may target them; if you change your life because of them, they really have won.
Why always France?
The main reason for France being frequently targeted by Islamic extremists is quite simple: its Muslim population is the highest in Western Europe. But French intervention in the Middle East, and in the fight against IS (Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh), has also played its part in provoking these attacks. Some point to problems of integration, and the idea that France has not done enough to encourage its immigrants to imbibe a sense of belonging.

Word Watch

National celebration
Bastille Day is celebrated on July 14th every year. It commemorates the 1789 storming of the Bastille prison during the French Revolution, which had begun two days earlier in disputes between the king and the National Assembly. Celebrations take place in every major French city, as well as a huge military parade in Paris.
The truck driver
It is reported that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, from Tunisia, and separated from his wife and children, had not led the life of a devout Muslim but regularly drunk alcohol and got into fights.
Nice was one of ten cities chosen to host matches at Euro 2016 (including England v Iceland). Many expected terrorists to target the competition.
Active volunteers who function as back-up troops in a nation’s armed forces. They are otherwise civilians and have jobs outside the military.
National Front
The Front National has risen from the far-right, openly racist and anti-Semitic fringe to become one of the most popular parties in France, largely thanks to the leadership of Marine Le Pen who has softened the party’s image.

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