On summer evenings, the narrow, steep streets of Vieux Nice, the old town of France's fifth-biggest city, are teeming with tourists brandishing an ice cream or a slice of socca, a local chick-pea delicacy. So are the Place Masséna square or the Promenade des Anglais, the boulevard that runs along the Mediterranean. But this Thurdsay, at midnight, the only people on the streets of the Riviera's capital are a few stragglers, and police with helmets and guns.
Just one hour earlier, a truck had plowed into the crowd assembled on the Promenade des Anglais for the July 14 celebrations. More than 70 have been killed, say local authorities. Eyewitnesses say an individual driving a white truck zig-zagged through the crowd, to kill as many of the people who had come to see the traditional fireworks that salute France's national day.
"My mother was on the scene. She's back home now. She's in tears, totallly shocked," says a young man in front of the Casino Le Ruhl, just steps from where the massacre happened. Passersby look on another's phone at the terrible images filmed just after the truck plowed through here. They show bodies on the ground, bloodstains, people running.
In downtown Nice, the cops are tense. On Place Masséna, armed police yell at passersby to put their hands up and lift their t-shirts; tourists cross the square with their hands on their heads, and police take it upon themselves to frisk them. Elsewhere in the city, cops patrol with heavy weaponry, getting people out of bars and advancing down the streets, shining powerful flashlights into the windows.
This unfolds in a silence interrupted only by the sirens of the ambulances and of the police cars. Tourists who have taken shelter in the lobbies of the hotels close to the Promenade stand and wait, their gazes uneasy. Little French flags distributed for the national holiday lie abandoned on the sidewalks outside.
Broken glass and the remains of sandwiches on the ground bear witness to the panicked run of those who had come here, on the boulevard by the sea, to celebrate July 14. Men from the BRI and the RAID, the special forces, still linger here; so does a woman, making hectic phone calls on her balcony.
At around two in the morning, soldiers comb through the bushes in the Coulée Verte gardens, searching with their flashlights. Whoever is still around at this hour gets a warning from the cops: Go home, they say, and fast.