Nice attack CCTV ‘manipulation’ controversy a new blow to French govt
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The French government hit back on Monday at accusations by a policewoman that the interior ministry had pressured her to change a report into security at the Bastille Day massacre in Nice.
The allegations came amid widespread anger at the government over alleged policing failures during the festivities in Nice, where 84 people were killed after Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a 19-tonne truck into revelers gathered to watch fireworks on the city’s famed Promenade des Anglais.
Policewoman Sandra Bertin, who is in charge of Nice’s video surveillance network, said she was “harassed” by an interior ministry representative to report that national police had been deployed at two different points at the celebration, in addition to local police forces.
“The national police were perhaps there, but I couldn’t see them on the video,” Bertin told French weekly the Journal du Dimanche in an interview published on Sunday.
Bertin’s claims echoed remarks by conservative regional president and former Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, who has accused the government of lying about security at the time of the attack.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, however, immediately rejected the allegations, saying he would sue for defamation.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls backed Cazeneuve, describing the scandal as a “political polemic aimed at destabilising the government” on Monday, while President François Hollande said there was no room for “controversy and confrontation” and that an investigation would uncover the truth.
Since then, several French media outlets have questioned the veracity of Bertin’s account after obtaining a copy of the email containing her report, and identifying its recipient as a police commissioner with the National Police Information Centre (Centre d’information de la police nationale) – not an interior ministry representative.
“The inconsistencies in Sandra Bertin’s version of events,” read the headline of a story on French magazine Nouvel Observateur’s website on Monday afternoon. “Nice: No, the policewoman did not deal with a member of Cazeneuve’s cabinet,” declared the title of another article on Europe 1 radio’s website.
‘Very bad for the Socialist Party’
Despite the doubt now surrounding Bertin’s claims, the scandal has dealt a serious blow to Hollande, fueling the perception his government did not do enough to prevent the attack.
“What is happening weakens Hollande, Valls and Cazenueve a lot. Hollande is the head of state, he’s the one from whom we demand safety,” Thomas Guénolé, a political scientist and lecturer at Sciences Po university in Paris, told FRANCE 24.
“For Valls and Cazeneuve it’s different because for years they’ve embodied in the public sphere what I call ‘securitism’. They have built a tone, speech and character based on security. I don’t think it’s still the case after the Nice attack, because the public debate about whether or not there were security mistakes hits at their entire character of security,” he said.
With the country’s next presidential elections less than a year away, the controversy will likely hurt voter confidence in Hollande and his Socialist government, according to François Bernard Huyghe, a senior research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.
“It’s very, very bad for the Socialist Party, which is divided,” Huyghe told FRANCE 24, whatever the outcome of the inquiry. “It’s a difficult situation [for the government] because there will always remain these allegations that they hid something… What do you do when people start disbelieving what you say?”
Guénolé agreed with Huyghe, pointing to Hollande’s already abysmal ratings. The president is the least popular leader in recent French history, with the latest polls putting his approval at between 17 and 19 percent.
“When you’re so low on potential voters, you don’t make it to the second round [of the presidential elections]. But now, there’s also an idea in the public that they can’t handle the terrorist threat,” he said.
“I was already saying that the [Socialist Party] was done before the attack in Nice. I wouldn’t bet on it [winning] now even if you paid me.”