I spent the evening of November 13, 2015, anxiously lying in bed in my apartment in Paris. I’d been eating pizza and playing FIFA online, as any slob slowly making his way into adulthood would do on a Friday night, when the news broke that terrorists had attacked a stadium, a concert hall, and restaurants around the city. The push notifications and the tweets suddenly lighting up my phone drew me away from the video game a little bit. But I couldn’t actually stop playing.
My mind needed — and, frankly, I wanted — something to focus on while I listened to cable news and answered concerned calls and texts from my family and friends back home in Nice. I went on Facebook myself to see if everyone I knew was safe, which was fortunately the case. In the moments when the game loaded — before a goal kick, after a goal — I checked for more news on Twitter and Facebook. I was so distracted, I lost most of the games, but FIFA kept my brain from collapsing.
Then, like everyone else in Paris, I lived through what came over the next few weeks and months: the state of emergency, the investigation, the testimonies, the tributes, the mourning, the analyses, the world’s attention focusing on our city, the political pandemonium, the blurring of banality and violent spectacles that passes for “normal life” these days.
Eight months later, on Thursday, July 14, I was at home in bed again when a former colleague sent me a tweet: “What’s happening in Nice?” I had no idea. I looked at Twitter: a truck…gunshots, a hostage-taking? My eyes widened watching the video of the wave of panic in front of the Nice opera.
There were 1,500 people inside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris when the gunmen started firing last November. On the attacked terraces and outside the Stade de France, there were a few hundred more. In Nice, there were 30,000 people out on the Promenade des Anglais celebrating Bastille Day when a man with a truck started mowing through the crowd, and thousands more in the historic Old Town. The attack left 85 people dead, including 10 children and teenagers, and others unconscious and in critical condition.
I snapped into the role my loved ones had been in back in November, calling all my extended family in Nice, sending Facebook messages to friends: “Where were you? Are you OK? Where are you now?” As a journalist, I also had to work. I had to describe my city to my American colleagues, estimate how many people could have been on the promenade that evening, explain some nuances of local politics, and gather eyewitness accounts.
An hour after the news broke, I called friends who had been at the site of the attack. My throat tightened as I tried to ask them to tell me what they’d seen. In an eerily calm voice, Charlotte, who had been on the rocky beach below the road, said she hadn’t seen the truck but had heard a very loud, metallic noise. She then saw people jumping from the promenade to fall onto the pebbles two meters below. Some of them rushed toward the sea.
The next morning, I returned to Nice. When I arrived on the promenade, where the attack occurred, the scene struck me as a copy-paste of what I’d witnessed a few months earlier at the Place de la République in Paris. The dozens of TV trucks parked on the pavement. The American special correspondents who were getting their makeup done right next to crying locals. The piles of flowers, drawings, poems. The smell of wax from burning candles. A macabre routine.
The American special correspondents getting their makeup done right next to crying locals. The piles of flowers, drawings, poems. A macabre routine.
But after talking with my family and friends, walking on the promenade, and simply listening to the conversations around me, I realized I was wrong. This time was different.
Nice and Paris are two cities with very distinct cultures. Paris's motto is "Fluctuat nec mergitur,” an elegant Latin phrase that means "Tossed, but not sunk.” The Niçois equivalent is "M'en bati, sieu nissart," a saying in the local dialect that literally means "I don't give a fuck, I'm from Nice." Paris and France have Joan of Arc, a virgin warrior who heard the voice of God and fought the English. Nice has Catarina Ségurana, a semi-mythical figure who, legend says, mooned the fleeing Turkish troops who failed to take the city in the 16th century. She might also have wiped her ass with the Ottoman flag. A local middle school is named after her.
Nice is very influenced by neighboring Italy, and has been part of France only since 1860. The people in southern France, and especially in Nice, tend to have a natural mistrust of everything from Paris: the politics, the coldness, the arrogance. I have heard these anti-Parisian speeches since my childhood, yet I have rarely felt this difference as acutely as after the attack. Last November, my Parisian friends felt anger, of course, but the atmosphere was rather solemn, sad. In Paris, the minute of silence observed for the victims was actually silent. In Nice, in a very southern, Latin way, people clapped to honor the dead. Then anger very quickly took the upper hand.
A pile of trash and pebbles has been put on the spot where the attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was shot dead by police. Insults are scrawled on the stones in marker: “Bastard,” “Son of a bitch,” “Burn in hell.” Children stop by to spit on the heap of waste. Some women restrain themselves to a simple “jerk” while passing. Lots of my Parisian friends were shocked to see this. Near the Stade de France, where the terrorists blew themselves up, there were no such improvised monuments to be found.
Parisians were also outraged when they saw hundreds of people booing the politicians who spoke at a ceremony commemorating the victims just days after the attack. The current government is quite unpopular, and this type of heckling is common in France, but to witness it right after a moment of silence for the dead is unheard of. People yelled “Bastard!” at the prime minister and called for him to resign. I was in the crowd. Next to me, an elderly woman was shouting at the PM in sobs, in a trance-like state. I had to escort a woman who was about to faint out of the throng.
The militant supporters of France’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party weren’t the only ones shouting. This inability to keep silent when one is suffering is a testimony to the spirit of Nice, now heightened as people lash out against the terrorists and the authorities alike. Many people with fairly middle-of-the-road political leanings hold the government just as responsible for what happened on the Promenade des Anglais as they do the attacker. One of my friends told me that she wanted a “state of siege” in France.
I asked my friend Damien, a lifelong resident of Nice, whether he thought things could ever get back to normal. He’d been standing within a few meters of the truck's path that night and saw bodies falling like “bowling pins” before he went to hide in a restaurant. After silence had fallen on the promenade, he rode back along that same route on his scooter in a daze to the offices of Nice-Matin, where he works as a journalist.
Paris's motto is "Tossed, but not sunk.” The Niçois equivalent is "M'en bati, sieu nissart," a saying that literally means "I don't give a fuck, I'm from Nice."
“It’s going to take a long time to heal because it’s the prom,” he said, speaking with the slightly nasal local accent I have already lost. “It’s the place where you go jogging, the place where you go to celebrate your high school graduation, the place where you go to test out the bicycle your parents gave you for Christmas.”
The promenade is the only place where all layers of the population of Nice cross paths: joggers and hashish dealers, grandpas from the Old Town and American families on holiday, foreign students and Sunday picnickers. They were all there on Bastille Day. While the victims of the November attacks in Paris are often described as members of the “Bataclan Generation” — a term coined by French media for the urban twentysomethings who seemed to be targeted in the attack on the rock venue — the list of the dead in Nice is striking for its diversity of ages and geographic and social origins. Knowingly or not, the terrorists targeted a symbol of community, of something everyone shared.
Apart from the promenade, Nice is hardly a model of social cohesion. The well-off neighborhoods in the hills where I went to middle school dominate over the less privileged areas I only passed through. A story in L’Express explains very well, without indulging in stereotyping, how Nice is divided and why: high unemployment among young people of immigrant descent, very eccentrically located, ghetto-like suburbs where the marginalized groups live, and an influx of immigrants from both highly privileged and underprivileged backgrounds.
Opposite my high school, right in the city center, the anti-immigrant group Nissa Rebela put up posters calling on citizens to say “yes to socca,” the chickpea flour crepes local to Nice, and “no to kebabs.” As a teen, I was subjected to Islamophobic and anti-Semitic insults, which always surprised me because I am neither a Muslim nor a Jew. While covering the municipal elections during my internship at a local news site, I was struck by the strong showing of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim candidates. The former president of the “no to kebabs” group got 5% of the vote. He has since joined the National Front. One of center-right candidates I’d voted for in the past — before learning that he, too, would go on to join that party — got 10%.
Now the kind of hate speech that was already quite common in Nice before the attack has been magnified. Following the minute of silence commemorating the victims, a French woman of North African descent heard a man exhorting her to “go back home.” “I was born in France,” she shouted back repeatedly. A woman who had just lost her mother, a Muslim, in the attack, heard this from a man on a terrace: “So much the better — that makes one less of them.”
What saddens me is that I am not surprised by these stories. I hear less violent versions of these sentiments from my own family and friends and feel helpless. I often find myself unfriending high school acquaintances on Facebook because they’ve posted a racist image or status.
Knowingly or not, the terrorists targeted a symbol of community, of something everyone shared.
The rise of hatred within Nice is what frightens me most, in a visceral way. This was already a tense city. “There is a real problem posed by Islam,” Christian Estrosi, the deputy mayor, said after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Around that time, an 8-year-old boy was questioned by police, because he was alleged to have said, “I’m with the terrorists.” According to his lawyer — and what does it say about the state of law and terror in 2016 that 8-year-olds need lawyers — the boy admitted this, but also told them he didn’t know what “terrorism” meant.
Even as thousands of people have come together to search for missing persons, raise money for the victims’ families, and offer condolences, the Facebook group set up to organize these efforts has become polluted by racist remarks and conspiracy theories.
I don’t know how this wound will heal. French politicians are not helping by exploiting the tragedy on the promenade for lowbrow political attacks on one another ahead of the 2017 presidential campaign. Even when the trauma subsides, the people of Nice — like the people of San Bernardino and Orlando — now know terror isn’t something that happens only in big cities. I remember 9/11 disrupting my cartoon shows when I was 7; it seemed so far away from me. Now life is punctuated by push alerts: Brussels. Istanbul. Dhaka. Normandy. We tend to get used to the violence and the hatred that is slowly swallowing the world we know. It’s a familiar meme until it hits home. Then, we wonder when and where it will happen next.