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Hollande leads tributes to Nice attack victims, three months after attack

AFP | François Hollande at the memorial for the victims of the July 14 Nice attack.

French President François Hollande led tributes on Saturday to those killed in a Bastille Day attack in the southern resort city of Nice. A white rose was placed for each of the 86 victims at the central memorial.

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The homage to the dead, as well as the more than 400 injured in the July 14 attack, was postponed until one day after the three-month anniversary because of storms in the region.

As more than 30,000 Bastille Day revellers gathered on the seafront Promenade des Anglais, a 31-year-old Tunisian rammed a 19-tonne truck through the crowd before police shot him dead.

The Islamic State (IS) group said the driver of the truck, Mohamed Lahouaiej B., was one of its followers.

Addressing the victims’ families, Hollande said he was expressing “our compassion and the entire French nation’s solidarity”.

“It should have been a day of joy,” he said. “And it was hell. In just four minutes a truck sped through a peaceful crowd and turned the Promenade des Anglais into a cemetery.”

“The victims of this barbaric act did not share the same backgrounds, the same history, the same skin colour, they didn’t share the same religion,” Hollande said. “But today they are all together because of this tragedy.”

The massacre was among the worst in a string of jihadist attacks over the past two years that have ramped up security fears while stoking anti-immigrant sentiment in the run-up to presidential elections next year.

In a tweet earlier in the day, Hollande wrote: "Each of the victims had their own dreams, loves, projects, problems, beliefs, but they had one thing in common: They wanted to live free."

Hollande's Socialist government came under fire for alleged security lapses ahead of the attack in Nice. Critics pointed to an insufficient police presence despite the state of emergency in place since the November 13, 2015, attacks that claimed 130 lives in and around Paris.

The government, however, rejected calls for Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to resign.

Four days after the Nice attack, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was booed when he visited the city to honour the victims.

The attack also exacerbated tensions in French society, felt particularly by the country's large Muslim community – estimated at 7.5 million, it is the largest in Europe. Several city councils subsequently went on to forbid the wearing of Burkini swimwear, before the controversial ban was reversed by France's highest court.

Christian Estrosi, regional head of the right-wing Les Républicains (formerly the UMP) party, urged restraint.

The occasion calls for "the greatest dignity... for the victims, for Nice and for France", said Estrosi, a fierce critic of the government's anti-terror response.

The Marseillaise was performed by the Children's Choir of the Nice Côte d'Azur Opera House.

'I saw the driver smile'

Survivors of the attack are still trying to put their lives back together.

Vincent Delhommel Desmarest, who runs a restaurant on the Promenade des Anglais, is still haunted by the bloodbath and has yet to return to work.

"You don't sleep at night. I saw the whole thing, the lorry bearing down, the mutilated, decapitated bodies, the guts," said Desmarest, who heads a victims' support group.

Another witness told investigators he was nearby when the attacker started up the lorry.

"I saw the driver smile and accelerate," he said.

The rampage that followed lasted four minutes and 17 seconds.

The IS group later said the attacker had been one of its "soldiers", inspired by IS group propaganda to attack Western targets.

Nearly a third of those killed were Muslims.

The recriminations following the Nice atrocity posed a fresh challenge for the already deeply unpopular Hollande, who has yet to announce whether he will run for re-election next year. He has tried to unite the country behind calls for a "France of fraternity" in the fight against extremism.

Saturday's ceremony will be "an important moment of national solidarity", Desmarest said. "It doesn't bring people back to life, but it allows the mourning to go ahead."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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