Angry French city asks after church attack: Why us again?


People gather near candles and flowers to pay tribute to the victims of a deadly knife attack in front of the Notre Dame church in Nice, France, October 30, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

NICE, France (Reuters) - When a suspected Islamist from Tunisia killed three people this week in a church in the French Riviera city of Nice, for many residents it brought painful memories flooding back.

Four years ago, another suspected Islamist originally from Tunisia had driven a 19-tonne truck into a crowd about not far from the church, killing more than 80 people.

The church attack, coming on top of the truck assault, left many people in Nice on Friday feeling they had angry, and wanting to fight back against the people they believe are to blame.

"We've had enough," Nice resident Francois Bonson, 38, said at the scene of the church attack on Friday. He said his mother-in-law often visited the church, and he initially feared she was among the victims.

"We're forced to live with these foreigners who spit on us, who spit on France," Bonson said.

The truck attack happened on July 14, 2016 as people in Nice were watching a fireworks display to mark Bastille Day, France's national holiday.

Tunisian immigrant Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel steered the Renault truck into the crowd thronging the seafront Promenade des Anglais. He was shot by police. The Islamic State group said it was responsible for the attack.

Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, who was also in office at the time of the truck attack, alluded to it when he rushed to the scene of the church attack on Thursday.

"Nice, like France and maybe more than other places in France, is paying a price that's too high, becoming once again the victim of Islamo-fascism," he said.

Local newspaper Nice Matin wrote in an editorial in its Friday edition: "Traumatised for ever by the night of July 14, 2016, which they would like to chase from their minds, the people of Nice are once again confronted by barbarism."

MUSLIMS UNDER SCRUTINY

Nice's history with such violence helped explain why, on Monday, some people were in bitter, combative mood.

Boubekeur Bekri, regional vice-president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, said he feared that sentiment could evolve into a rejection of the Muslim community.

There are around 1 million Muslims living in the Provence Alpes Cote D'Azur region that includes Nice, Bekri said.

He recalled that in Nice after the 2016 attack, veiled Muslim woman were verbally attacked in the street.

After Thursday's church attack, he said, he noticed people shooting him suspicious looks because they recognised from his appearance that he is a Muslim. "I'm sufficiently inured to let it go," he said. "But it's niggling, you see it."

He said that sentiment had not spilled over into overt actions or violence directed at the Muslim community. He said communities needed to come together to tackle terrorism.

But for the time being, he said, "People are not going to be able to come together. Instead of convergence, it may be we're heading towards some problems."

Jean-Francois Gourdon, parish treasurer for the Notre Dame church where the attack took place, said on Friday he tried to follow a path of compassion, but he could not do it any longer.

"Now I feel anger," he said.

One of the victims of the attack, the church sexton, Vincent Loques, was Gourdon's friend. He broke down in tears as he recalled comforting Loques' wife after she heard her husband was dead.

"We've been welcoming, but we're not going to be welcoming any more," he said. "We don't want to become Lebanon or a country like that."

"It's not anti-Muslim. I just want people to respect other people. To each their place. When in Rome, you do as the Romans do."

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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