Nice, July 14, 2016: Bastille Day. The evening festivities were ending. As the crowd watching fireworks was beginning to disperse, the driver of a 19-ton truck, zig-zagging, mowed down everyone in his way. Ten minutes and 84 dead persons later, the driver was shot and killed. Dozens were wounded; many will be crippled for life. Dazed survivors wandered the streets of the city for hours.
French television news anchors quickly said that what happened was almost certainly an "accident," or when the French authorities started to speak of terrorism, that the driver could just be a madman. When the police disclosed the killer's name and identity, and that he had been depressed in the past, they suggested that he had acted in a moment of "high anxiety." They found witnesses who testified that he was "not a devout Muslim" -- maybe not a Muslim at all.
President François Hollande spoke a few hours later and affirmed his determination to "protect the populace."
Prime Minister Manuel Valls repeated what he already said 18 months ago: "France is at war." He named an enemy, "radical Islamism," but he was quick to add that "radical Islamism" has "nothing to do with Islam." He then repeated what he emphasized so many times: the French will have to get used to living with "violence and attacks."
The public reaction showed that Valls convinced hardly anyone. The French are increasingly tired of attempts to exonerate Islam. They know perfectly well that all Muslims are not guilty. They also know that, nevertheless, all those who committed attacks in France in recent years were Muslims. They do not feel protected by François Hollande. They see that France is attacked with increasing intensity and that radical Islam has declared war, but they do not see France declaring war back. They have no desire to get used to "violence and attacks." They do not want to be on the losing side and they feel that we are losing.
Because the National Front Party uses more robust language, much of the public votes for its candidates. The National Front's leader, Marine Le Pen, will undoubtedly win the first round of voting in the presidential election next year. She will probably not be elected in the end, but if nothing changes quickly and clearly, she will have a very good chance next time.
Moderate politicians read the public opinion polls, harden their rhetoric, and recommend harsher policies. Some of them might demand harsher measures, such as the expulsion of detained terrorists who have dual citizenship and the detention of people that praise attacks. Some have even called for martial law.
Calm will gradually return, but it is clear that the situation in France is approaching the boiling point.
The recent attacks served as an accelerant. Four years ago, when Mohamed Merah murdered soldiers and Jews in Toulouse, the population did not react. Most French did not feel directly concerned; soldiers were just soldiers, and Jews were just Jews. When, in January 2015, Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were slaughtered, an emotional reaction engulfed the country, only to quickly vanish. A huge demonstration was organized in the name of "freedom of speech" and the "values of the republic." Hundreds of thousands claimed, "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie"). When, two days later, Jews were murdered again in a kosher grocery store, hardly anyone said "I am a Jew."
Those who tried to speak of jihad were promptly reduced to silence. Not even a year later, in November, the Bataclan Theater bloodbath did not lead to protests, but was a deeper shock. The mainstream media and the government could no longer hide that it was an act of jihad. The number killed was too overwhelming; one could not just turn the page. The mainstream media and the government did their best to downplay anger and frustration and to emphasize sadness. Solemn ceremonies with flowers and candles were everywhere. A "state of emergency" was declared and soldiers were sent into the streets.
But then the feeling of danger faded. The Euro 2016 soccer championship was organized in France, and the French team's good performance created a false sense of unity.
The Nice attack was a wake-up call again. It brutally reminded everyone that the danger is still there, deadlier than ever, and that the measures taken by the authorities were useless gesticulations. Memories of the previous killings came back.
Attempts to hide that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the terrorist in Nice, was a jihadist fooled no one. Instead, it just created more anger, more frustration, and more desire for effective action.
Days before the Nice attack, the media reported that the parliamentary inquiry commission report on the Bataclan Theater attack revealed that the victims had been ruthlessly tortured and mutilated, and that the government had tried to cover up these facts. Now the entire public discovered the extent of the horror, adding fuel to the fire.
France seems now on the verge of a revolutionary moment; it would not take much to cause an explosion. But the situation is more serious than many imagine.
Whole areas of France are under the control of gangs and radical imams. The government delicately calls them "sensitive urban zones." Elsewhere they are bluntly called "no go zones." There are more than 570 of them.
Hundreds of thousands of young Muslims live there. Many are thugs, drug traffickers, robbers. Many are imbued with a deeply rooted hatred for France and the West. Recruiters for jihadists organizations tell them -- directly or through social networks -- that if they kill in the name of Allah, they will attain the status of martyrs. Hundreds are ready. They are unpinned grenades that may explode anywhere, anytime.
Although possessing, carrying and selling weapons are strictly regulated in France, weapons of war circulate widely. And, of course, the Nice attack has shown once again that a firearm is not necessary to commit mass murder.
Twenty-thousand people are listed in the government's "S-files," an alert system meant to identify individuals linked to radical Islam. Most are unmonitored. Toulouse murderer Mohamed Merah, the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, and many of the terrorists who attacked the Bataclan Theater were in the S-files. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the terrorist who acted in Nice, was not.
France's intelligence chief said recently that more attacks are to come and that many potential killers wander freely, undetected.
Doing what the French government is doing today will not improve anything. On the contrary. France is at the mercy of another attack that will set the powder keg ablaze.
Doing more will lead to worse before matters get better. Regaining control of many areas would entail mobilizing the army, and leftists and anarchists would certainly add disorder to disorder.
Imprisoning whoever could be imprisoned in the name of public safety would imply more than martial law; it would mean the suspension of democratic freedoms, and even so, be an impossible task. The jails in France are already full. The police are outnumbered and showing signs of exhaustion. The French army is at the limit of its capacity for action: it already patrols the streets of France, and is deployed in Africa and the Middle East.
The French army is at the limit of its capacity for action: it already patrols the streets of France and is deployed in Africa and the Middle East. Pictured above: French soldiers guard a Jewish school in Strasbourg, February 2015. (Image source: Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons)
Successive governments have built a trap; the French, who are in it, are thinking only of how to escape.
President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls bear all the guilt. For years, many in France supported any movement that denounced "Islamophobic racism." They passed laws defining criticism of Islam as a "hate crime." They relied more and more on the Muslim vote to win elections. The most important left-wing think tank in France, Terra Nova, which is considered close to the Socialist Party, published several reports explaining that the only way for the left to win elections is to attract the votes of Muslim immigrants and to add more Muslims to the France's population.
The moderate right is also guilty. President Charles de Gaulle established the "Arab policy of France," a system of alliances with some of the worst dictatorships in the Arab-Muslim world, in the belief that France would regain its lost power thanks to this system. President Jacques Chirac followed in the footsteps of de Gaulle. President Nicolas Sarkozy helped overthrow the Gaddafi regime in Libya and bears a heavy responsibility for the mess that followed.
The trap revealed its lethal effects a decade ago. In 2005, riots across France showed that Muslim unrest could lead France to the brink of destruction. The blaze was extinguished thanks to the appeals for calm from Muslim organizations. Since then, France has been at the mercy of more riots.
The choice was made to practice appeasement. It did not stop the rot gaining ground.
François Hollande made hasty decisions that placed France at the center of the target. Seeing that strategic interests of France were threatened, he launched military operations against Islamist groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Realizing that French Muslims were going to train and wage jihad in Syria, he decided to engage the French army in actions against the Islamic State.
He did not anticipate that Islamist groups and the Islamic State would hit back and attack France. He did not perceive the extent to which France was vulnerable -- hollowed out from within.
The results put in full light a frightening landscape. Islamists view the landscape and do not dislike what they see.
On their websites, they often quote a line from Osama bin Laden: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will naturally want to side with the strong horse."
They appear to think that France is a weak horse and that radical Islam can bring France to its knees in a pile of dust and rubble. Time, they seem to think, is on their side as well -- and demography. Muslims now make up about 10% of the French population; 25% of teenagers in France are Muslims.
The number of French Muslims who want Islamic sharia law applied in France increases year after year, as does the number of French Muslims who approve of violent jihad. More and more French people despise Islam, but are filled with fear. Even the politicians who seem ready to fight do not take on Islam.
Islamists seem to think that no French politician will to overcome what looks more and more like a perfect Arab storm. They seem to feel that the West is already defeated and does not have what it takes to carry the day. Are they wrong?
Dr. Guy Millière, a professor at the University of Paris, is the author of 27 books on France and Europe.