School shooting scare highlights French anxiety about terror

Mar 18, 2017

As news erupted about a shooting at the Alexis de Tocqueville High School in Grasse on Thursday, there was an expectation among much of the French public that the attacker had an ideological motive. This had to be an act of terror, right?

A reporter at the scene early on asked students whether the gunman had shouted anything before firing his weapons, injuring several people. A claim of allegiance, perhaps. Witnesses said they hadn’t heard anything. 

It turned out that the alleged shooter, who came in with two accomplices and was armed with a rifle, two handguns and a grenade, is the son of a Grasse elected official who had run with the far-right National Front and is now supporting conservative candidate François Fillon in the presidential campaign. After his arrest, the 17-year-old told police he had been harassed by two schoolmates and was seeking revenge. Additional suspects in the attack were taken into custody on Friday.

Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem called the incident “the mad action of a fragile young man fascinated by firearms.” Investigators reviewing the young man’s Facebook postings said the boy was obsessed with the Columbine school massacre and horror film imagery. He had obtained his weapons at his father’s and grandfather’s house. But the kind of weaponized teenage angst that characterized the school attack is more familiar to Americans than the French. 

France has lived under a state of emergency for some 15 months now. On Thursday, President François Hollande announced it would remain in effect until July 15.

Grasse is only about 25 miles away from Nice, where a terrorist attack took place last year on July 14, Bastille Day. A Tunisian-born man who claimed allegiance to ISIS drove a truck through a crowded promenade where people had gathered to watch the fireworks. More than 80 people were killed. France has been unnerved by multiple terror attacks since 2012, many of them apparently motivated by Islamist extremism.

But following the school shooting on Thursday, some on social media worried that France, in its anxiety over terror, has become thoroughly Islamophobic. It’s clear that fear of Islamist terror threats has gripped the nation’s psyche. Essayist Hubert Huertas called this phenomenon “hysteria,” a “collective dysfunction.” On the news website Mediapart, he wrote that “in the end, the disease which consists in seeing [ISIS] everywhere becomes more dangerous than the attacks themselves. … The enemy is not them anymore, it’s us.” That is something many have been pondering for a while, not just in France, but in the United States too.

At the same time, some analysts observed that preparedness specifically for terror attacks may have been the reason no one died in Thursday’s school shooting. Teachers and students reacted quickly, barricading themselves in classrooms — as they have done during school drills across the nation in the past few years.

I recently spotted a French government poster, the kind that is displayed in public spaces — train stations, schools, hospitals, government offices. “Réagir en cas d’attaque terroriste,” it read — “How to react in a terrorist attack situation.” The brightly colored placard looks eerily utilitarian for such dark subject matter. It supports the notion that the threat of terrorism has become a fact of life in France. But while it’s good to be prepared, as we saw in the Grasse school shooting, a wide range of situations can lead jittery minds to wrong conclusions.

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI