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French authorities have faced fierce criticism since Tunisia-born Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a 19-tonne truck along Nice’s packed sea-front promenade on Bastille Day, France’s main public holiday, killing 84 people and injuring scores more.
It was the third time in 18 months that an attack linked to jihadist extremism had caused carnage on the streets of France, though investigators are still probing Bouhlel’s actual links to radical Islamism.
While previous attacks were followed by a display of unity from France’s political forces, the bloodshed on the French Riviera has prompted heated wrangling over claims officials failed to provide adequate security on Nice’s famed Promenade des Anglais, where revellers had gathered to watch the traditional firework display on July 14.
The public mood has also been less forgiving. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Manuel Valls wasbooed by an angry crowd on Nice’s beachfront walkway as he attended a minute of silence in tribute to the victims. Some cried “Valls resign”.
Lawyers say several victims and their relatives now plan to take their grief and anger to court, accusing the authorities of failing in their duty to protect the public.
Thierry, 53, was not on the Nice promenade when Bouhlel’s truck rammed the crowd just as the fireworks were ending. But he rushed to the scene to find his partner and her daughter, injuring himself along the way.
“They called me in tears after the truck had grazed them,” he told AFP. “We went to the police station to give our testimony. […] At the end the officer asked whether we had anything else to add. We said we were filing a complaint against […] all the people who were in charge of security – the prefect, the mayor and the event’s organizers – for security failings.”
Lawyer Samia Maktouf, whose clients already include relatives of victims of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were killed, said she had been contacted by people injured in the Nice attack and their families to file lawsuits against local authorities and the French state.
“These people are shocked, sickened, they simply cannot understand how it was possible for such a large truck to drive freely around town on the night of our national holiday,” Maktouf told FRANCE 24.
Critics have noted that the 19-tonne truck used in the deadly rampage should not have been allowed anywhere near the promenade, where vehicles above 3.5 tonnes are banned all year round. It is also forbidden for heavy-duty trucks to be on the move across France on the country’s main public holiday.
Maktouf said her clients’ action would help “shed light on the dysfunctions that led to this terrible event, and help ensure it doesn’t happen again”.
The French-Tunisian lawyer pointed to similar steps taken by 17 families of victims of last November’s Paris attacks, whom she represents. She plans to lodge complaints against the French and Belgian states over the Paris shootings, saying legal action is motivated by “the very serious security dysfunctions” revealed by investigations in both countries.
Suing the state in cases of terrorism is a rare practice in France, but a recent ruling by a court in the southern city of Nimes is likely to encourage such complaints.
On July 12, Nimes’ administrative court ruled that the French state was in part responsible for the death of paratrooper Abel Chennouf, one of seven people killed in the Toulouse region by Islamist radical Mohamed Merah in 2012. The court said French intelligence services made an error in deciding to stop monitoring Merah, just months before the assaults, despite serious suspicions of his radicalization. It sentenced the state to pay Chennouf’s family €50,000 in damages.
Frédéric Picard, one of the lawyers in the Chennouf case, said it was too early to say whether similar proceedings were justified in the case of the July 14 attack.
“This kind of complaint has to be based on convincing evidence,” he told FRANCE 24, adding that an inquiry into possible security lapses on the night of the Nice attack, announced by the French government on Thursday, would reveal whether there are indeed grounds to bring charges against the authorities.
Picard’s own successful case against the French state was backed by a similar probe by France’s police inspectorate, the IGPN, which revealed “several objective failings” in assessing the threat posed by Merah.
Others in the profession have been more critical of attempts to sue the state, which Nice-based lawyer Laurent Denis-Peraldi described as a “juridical aberration”.
“One cannot be compensated twice for the same wrong,” he told AFP, arguing that victims of terrorist attacks already benefit from generous compensation schemes.
On Thursday, France’s secretary of state for victims of terrorism, Juliette Méadel, said the first €150,000 in damages had been paid a week after the Nice carnage, estimating the total amount at “€300 to 400 million”, which will be drawn from a dedicated fund set up in the 1990s to compensate victims of such attacks.
But compensation is not the only issue at stake, said Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc, spokesperson for the French Association of Victims of Terrorism (AfVT). He said suing the state meant “pointing one’s anger in the wrong direction”.
Such initiatives are “frustrating and sterile, and will, at best, lead to the state being sentenced”, Denoix de Saint Marc told FRANCE 24, lamenting a distraction from the fight against “the real enemy”: jihadist terrorism.
He said the issue of the state’s responsibility should be addressed in parliament rather than through the judiciary. “If the state has failed then we need a parliamentary inquiry and legislative proposals,” he said, adding: “Division is what the terrorists are after; we have to be careful not to play into their hands with initiatives that are dictated by otherwise legitimate anger.”