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How a string of ‘isolated’ attacks put France on alert

Georges Gobet, AFP | Police officers patrol the Christmas market in Nantes on December 23, 2014

A spate of spectacular but seemingly unrelated attacks on police and civilians in France has jarred nerves in a country that has been singled out by extremists calling for "lone wolf" action.

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Following the successive attacks in Joué-les-Tours, Dijon and Nantes, the French government announced on Tuesday it would deploy up to 300 extra troops to patrol public areas over the Christmas period.

The spate of attacks began on Saturday when a man was shot dead after walking into a police station in the central town of Joué-les-Tours and stabbing three officers with a knife, leaving two of them seriously injured.

The man, a Burundian national who had converted to Islam, allegedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) during the attack and had posted a flag of the Islamic State (IS) group on Facebook prior to the assault, prompting concerns that the attack may have been motivated by Islamic extremism.

The next day, a driver with a history of mental illness deliberately ran down pedestrians in several different locations in the eastern city of Dijon, also crying out “Allahu Akbar”, and injuring 10 people in the rampage.

And on Monday, a man ploughed his van through a crowded Christmas market in the western city of Nantes, killing one person and injuring nine, before repeatedly stabbing himself with a knife.

Prosecutors swiftly described the last two incidents as “isolated”, ruling out a terrorist link. Still, the government called an emergency cabinet meeting for Tuesday morning, while urging the public not to panic.

“We have to protect and reassure the French people,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said after the meeting, announcing the deployment of extra troops.

“We also have to protect public officials (who are) designated targets for some terrorist movements,” he said.

The radical Islamic State group that controls swathes of Iraq and Syria has repeatedly urged Muslims around the world to kill "in any manner" those from countries involved in a coalition fighting its jihadists, singling out the French.

Among instructions detailing how to kill civilians or military personnel was to "run them over with your car."

‘A temptation to categorise’

While at least two of the three recent attacks in France followed a similar modus operandi, experts have warned against lumping them together.

“We reason by making categorisations and we try to make sense out of events by categorising them,” said Gérald Bronner, a sociologist at the Université Paris Diderot and author of “The Democracy of the Gullible”.

“The recent attacks in Dijon and Nantes - with a car ploughing into crowds - make people think of similar attacks in Israel and we have a tendency to want to interpret incidents that resemble each other. It’s a mechanism that is far from stupid, but that can refer to totally different facts,” Bronner told FRANCE 24.

Roland Coutanceau, a criminal psychologist, said there were significant differences between the three assailants responsible for the attacks.

“Yes, the first (attacker) can be qualified as a terrorist because you can decode some kind of diehard conviction in his life,” he said. But, Coutanceau added, the second attacker was merely a mentally unstable man suffering from psychosis.

“The third remains a bit of a question mark. We see the same criminal mechanism that we find with so-called mass murderers,” he said, referring to the perpetrator’s self-inflicted stab wounds after he ran down Christmas shoppers. “But that doesn’t necessarily follow a terrorist logic.”

Copycats

So why did some politicians and media outlets rush to speak of terrorist attacks even as prosecutors and experts cautioned against such a line of inquiry in at least two of the three incidents?

According to Bronner, we are naturally influenced by events that occur near each other in time, “prompting us to seek one explanation that can be applied to all.”

“And considering the competition that exists between different media today, there is a temptation to deliver the most spectacular news. It was almost as though some commentators were disappointed when terrorism was ruled out in the Dijon case,” he said.

Coutanceau said the fact that there were as many as three attacks did suggest there may have been a copycat element to them.

“Media coverage of the Dijon incident – in which pedestrians were run down by a car – might have inspired the attacker in Nantes, without the (two) acts bearing the same criminal dynamics,” he said.

“The acts are of very different nature, so one shouldn’t see them as part of an epidemic or a contagious trend.”

But despite the calls to distinguish between the three attacks, some politicians may believe they have more to gain by ignoring that advice.

On Tuesday, Florian Philippot, the vice-president of France’s far-right National Front party, didn’t hesitate to say the attacks in both Joué-les-Tours and Dijon were “obviously terrorism”, saying the prosecutor in Nantes had spent “an hour on the investigation” and accusing the government of “escapism”.

 

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