Expecting throngs of tourists for the holidays, France is still reeling from three attacks on civilians this week. After roughly 20 people were injured — some badly — and one person killed in incidents Sunday and Monday, French officials deployed as many as 300 soldiers to assist other military patrols already guarding many of the country's public places.
The first attack occurred December 20 when a young man rushed into a police station in a town in central France and attacked three officers with a knife, reportedly shouting "Allahu Akbar" — a common Arabic expression that means "God is great" — before he was fatally shot by police.
The next day in Dijon, in eastern France, a driver shouting "Allahu Akbar" plowed into pedestrians, injuring 11 people, two seriously. Later Monday, a man rammed his car into a crowd of people walking between the stalls of a Christmas market in Nantes, in western France, injuring another 10 people and killing one. The attacker stabbed himself 12 times after the crash but survived. Contradicting initial reports on Twitter, the prosecutor in charge of the case said the attacker did not shout "Allahu Akbar" or any other religious phrase.
Also on Monday night, police arrested a man near Cannes with two shotguns and a long knife. He was close to another Christmas market, leading to some reports that the man was planning the country's fourth "lone wolf" attack, but subsequent evidence revealed that the case was nothing more than police responding to an argument between two men, not a foiled terrorist plot.
Police say the three attacks had nothing in common except for the fact that they happened around the same time. According to French newspaper Le Parisien, the knife-wielding man who stabbed police was a self-radicalized Muslim who used the Islamic State flag as the cover photo on his Facebook account.
Prosecutors said in a statement Monday that the "Allahu Akbar" driver in Dijon gave incoherent motives for the attack, changed his story multiple times, and had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals more than 150 times in recent years. The third man, who rammed his car into the holiday market crowd in Nantes, reportedly had mental health issues and problems with alcohol.
Experts believe mimicry remains the only plausible link between the cases, but many commenters online have refused to accept the assertion that these were not terrorist plots. Figures from France's right and far-right political groups have used the attacks to stoke Islamophobia and fears of homegrown jihadist strikes.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, held an emergency meeting yesterday. They announced that up to 300 soldiers will be deployed to patrol French streets under rules defined by Vigipirate, the country's counterterrorism law. The deployment will continue throughout the holiday season.
The deployment does not mean that tanks will be patrolling the streets of Paris during Christmas. The troops will reinforce the 780 soldiers that have patrolled crowded public places in France for years. The Vigipirate patrols usually consist of three soldiers armed with FAMAS assault rifles. They have become a familiar sight over the past decade at French airports, train stations, and shopping malls.
The Vigipirate is a series of measures established in 1978 to prevent terrorist attacks on French territories. The plan rose to prominence in 1995 when the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an Algerian terrorist organization, detonated several bombs in Paris metro stations. The Vigipirate has been constantly activated and revised in the years since, and once included a color-coded threat assessment system similar to the one used by the US Department of Homeland Security.
The system was reconfigured in October to have just three levels. Following Tuesday's meeting, the prime minister upgraded the threat level from "Vigilance" — the lowest level — to "Reinforced Vigilance," the second-highest threat level, which calls for a "temporary increase" in patrols to respond to a potential "terrorist menace."
The highest level — "Terror Attack Alert" — is activated when the country is "facing an imminent attack."
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