France expected to extend state of emergency for a fourth time after Nice attack

A body is seen on the ground July 15, 2016 after 84 people were killed in Nice, France, when a truck ran into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday July 14. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - French lawmakers, prompted by the Bastille Day massacre in Nice, were Tuesday (July 19) to debate extending the country's state of emergency for a fourth time amid mounting criticism of the government's response to extremist attacks.

President Francois Hollande had announced last Thursday that he planned to lift the measures on July 26.

But within hours, he changed tack after a truck driver ploughed through a crowd leaving a July 14 fireworks display in the Cote d'Azur resort.

The ruling Socialists have proposed a three-month extension but government sources told AFP that they would yield to the demands of the conservative opposition and keep the draconian measures in place until the beginning of 2017.

The state of emergency imposed after the November Paris attacks gives the police sweeping powers to carry out searches and place people under house arrest.

The National Assembly is expected to swiftly back the extension, after which it moves to the Senate.

Former president and opposition Republicans leader Nicolas Sarkozy, who is eyeing another run for the top job in 2017 elections, is demanding the government go even further.

Sarkozy, who has accused President Francois Hollande of failing to do everything necessary to protect the French, has called for anyone showing signs of being radicalised to be forced to wear an electronic tag, placed under house arrest or kept in a detention centre.

"We can't lock people up on the basis of mere suspicion, or suspicion of suspicion," minister for parliamentary relations Jean-Marie Le Guen retorted Tuesday.

Five days after the attack, 70 people are still hospitalised, 19 in critical condition.

On Monday, investigators said that 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who used a 19-tonne truck to mow down people, had shown "recent interest" in terrorist activity.

However Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said there was no direct evidence of Bouhlel's links to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - which claimed the attack.

Investigators found "very violent" photos on his computer, of corpses, fighters posing with the ISIS flag, and photos of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

The father-of-three also searched online for information about the terror attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida that left 49 dead, and the Paris suburb of Magnanville - where a police couple was killed last month. Both attacks were linked to ISIS.

The Nice attack came eight months after ISIS terrorists killed 130 people across Paris, and 18 months after three days of terror at the Charlie Hebdo weekly and a Jewish supermarket killed 17.

Thirteen of the 84 victims have yet to be identified.

Tourism on the Cote d'Azur, where Nice - France's second most-visit city after Paris - is situated, has been battered by the attack.
In Extenso tourism consultancy said hotel cancellation rates were running at 20-40 per cent.

The aftershocks are being felt in the capital also, where the director of the luxury Plaza Athenee hotel told AFP the phone had been "ringing off the hook with cancellations for July, August and September".

Unlike the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, Bouhlel, a petty criminal with a history of violence and depression, did not travel to the Middle East for training.

Molins, the prosecutor, said ISIS' call for supporters to strike targets in France had emboldened some people to act "without needing to go to Syria and without precise orders".

Bouhlel had a history of violence, with a doctor he consulted in Tunisia as a youth describing him as having psychotic tendencies.

In March, he received a suspended sentence for "armed assault" after beating a driver with a nail-studded plank in an episode of road rage.

He showed no interest in religion until recently, Molins said, with acquaintances telling people he "ate pork, drank alcohol, took drugs and had an unbridled sexual activity".

However earlier this month, he stopped shaving his beard, telling friends it was for "religious" purposes.

Six people are still being held over the attacks, including a 38-year-old Albanian suspected of providing Bouhlel with a pistol he used to fire at the police who shot him dead.

In a sign of the mounting frustration over a string of extremists bombings, shootings and stabbings that have killed over 230 people in 18 months, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was booed and heckled on Monday at a remembrance ceremony in Nice.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has pointed to several steps taken by the government to boost security, including sending thousands of troops into the streets.

"There is no zero risk," Cazeneuve said. "By saying this we are telling the truth to the French and tackling the threat with lucidity." ​

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