Nice (AFP): French President Francois Hollande will lead tributes on Saturday to the 86 people killed in Nice’s Bastille Day truck massacre, three months on from the jihadist atrocity in the southern resort city.
The homage to the dead as well as more than 400 injured in the July 14 attack was postponed until a day after the three-month anniversary because of storms in the region.
In the attack, a 31-year-old Tunisian extremist rammed a 19-tonne truck through a crowd of more than 30,000 Bastille Day revellers on the seafront Promenade des Anglais before police shot him dead.
The Islamic State (IS) group said the driver of the truck, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was one of its followers.
The massacre was among the worst in a string of jihadist attacks over the past two years that have ramped up security fears while stoking anti-immigrant sentiment in the run-up to presidential elections next year.
Hollande’s Socialist government came under fire for alleged security lapses ahead of the attack in Nice, a bastion of the right-wing opposition.
Critics pointed to an insufficient police presence despite the state of emergency in place since the November 13, 2015, attacks that claimed 130 lives in Paris.
The government rejected calls for Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to resign.
Four days after the Nice attack, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was booed when he visited the city to honour the victims.
The attack also exacerbated tensions in French society, felt particularly by the country’s three- to four-million-strong Muslim community — the largest in Europe. Several councils went on to forbid the wearing of Burkini swimwear, before the controversial ban was reversed by France’s highest court.
Saturday’s ceremony will be closed to the public, and Christian Estrosi, head of the right-wing Republicans party in the region, urged restraint.
The occasion calls for “the greatest dignity… for the victims, for Nice and for France”, said Estrosi, a fierce critic of the government’s anti-terror response.
– ‘I saw the driver smile’ –
Survivors of the attack are still trying to put their lives back together.
Vincent Delhommel Desmarest, who runs a restaurant on the Promenade des Anglais, is still haunted by the bloodbath and has yet to return to work.
“You don’t sleep at night. I saw the whole thing, the lorry bearing down, the mutilated, decapitated bodies, the guts,” said Desmarest, leader of a victims’ group.
Another witness told investigators he was nearby when the attacker Bouhlel started up the lorry.
“I saw the driver smile and accelerate,” he said.
The rampage that followed lasted four minutes and 17 seconds up to Bouhlel’s death.
The Islamic State group later said Bouhlel had been one of its “soldiers” inspired by IS propaganda to attack Western targets.
Nearly a third of those killed were Muslims.
The recriminations following the Nice atrocity posed a fresh challenge for the already deeply unpopular Hollande, who has yet to announce whether he will run for re-election next year.
He has tried to unite the country behind calls for a “France of fraternity” in the fight against extremism.
Saturday’s ceremony will be “an important moment of national solidarity”, Desmarest said. “It doesn’t bring people back to life but allows the mourning to go ahead.”
But solidarity remains elusive.
A boar’s head was found outside the En-Nour mosque in Nice on Tuesday, the second such anti-Muslim incident this year.