Fear shrouds French town after terror strike

Two women embracing in front of the Mosque of Villefontaine to condemn the Saint-Quentin-Fallavier attack last Saturday.
Two women embracing in front of the Mosque of Villefontaine to condemn the Saint-Quentin-Fallavier attack last Saturday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SAINT-QUENTIN-FALLAVIER (France) - The French town where a terrorist decapitated a man and targeted a gas plant is now grappling with the aftermath: A climate of heightened suspicion and division among its 6,000 residents.

Neighbours came in groups to gawk at the forest of cameras that popped up last Friday on Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, near Lyon.

They were anxious to share their emotions and find out about the assault after the attacker placed his victim's severed head with flags carrying Arabic inscriptions at a factory entrance before driving into the plant and ramming into gas canisters.

Mr Akin Yilmaz, a 20-year-old studying law in Lyon, was worried that the attack will add to what he says is animosity towards Muslims. Anti-Muslim sentiments were aggravated by the assaults on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in Paris that left 17 people dead in January, he said.

"This has dirtied Islam's reputation," he said. "A lot of people will mix things up. They'll believe Islam is the enemy - so soon after Charlie Hebdo, it's bound to lead to confusion and misconceptions."

Saint-Quentin residents' concerns show that Mr Yilmaz's fears may be well grounded.

A man trying to work out why the attacker displayed his former employer's severed head behind the gas plant rather than in the front, remarked that France was paying the price for being too hospitable to immigrants.

A woman walking with her daughter said she did not feel safe any more, because neighbouring cities had seen their populations expand in the last 10 years and now include many jobless young people who are children of immigrants.

In Saint-Priest, the modest Lyon suburb 19km away where the suspected terrorist lived, the atmosphere is tense, but more subdued. Most people in the street where the father of three had his apartment lowered their blinds last Saturday.

President Francois Hollande said the incident was clearly an act of terrorism. The suspect had been under surveillance from 2006 to 2008 because of links to Salafist movements.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline 'Fear shrouds French town after terror strike'. Print Edition | Subscribe