PARIS: French lawmakers voted massively yesterday to extend a state of emergency as President Francois Hollande said that a call to boost reserve forces had paved the way towards a "National Guard." The government is scrambling to find new ways to assure a jittery population after its third major attack in 18 months saw a truck driver plough into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 84 people.
After seven hours of fraught debate into the night, during which the opposition accused the government of being lax on security, the lower house of parliament voted by 489 to 26 to prolong the state of emergency for a further six months. It is the fourth time the measures have been extended since Islamic State jihadists struck Paris in November, killing 130 people at restaurants, a concert hall and the national stadium.
Hollande had planned to lift the measures on July 26 but changed tack after the Nice attack by Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel. The Islamic State (IS) group said the Tunisian driver was one of its "soldiers" but investigators say that while he showed a recent interest in jihadist activity, there was no evidence he acted on behalf of IS. Hollande said that of the 331 people injured in the attack, 15 were still fighting for their lives. The victims came from 38 different nations.
As part of the government's reaction to the attack-which has exposed it to tough questions over security failures-a call has gone out for volunteers in the reserve forces. Between current reservists, and the call for more volunteers, "we can say that France, with you, is forming a National Guard," Hollande said yesterday on a visit to a military training complex in southwest France. France's reserve force comprises civilian volunteers in the police, army and paramilitary police, who can be deployed for specific missions.
Extra police powers
Hollande's Socialist government had proposed a three-month extension to the state of emergency but relented to demands from the conservative opposition that the tough security laws be kept in place until the end of January.
The laws give the police extra powers to carry out searches and place people under house arrest. Yesterday, MPs also voted to allow authorities to search luggage and vehicles without prior approval from a prosecutor and to allow the police to seize data from computers and mobile phones. The bill now passes to the upper house, the Senate, which was debating it yesterday afternoon. With elections due next year, the cross-party solidarity seen after last year's attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket has evaporated.
During a visit to Portugal Tuesday Hollande appealed for greater unity. "The terrorists want to divide us, to separate us and turn people against each other," he warned. The government has defended its response to the jihadist threat, pointing to a raft of new anti-terror laws and the deployment of thousands of troops to patrol the streets. A recent parliamentary commission of inquiry said however the new laws had had a "limited impact" on security.
'There will be other attacks'
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned the country about the enduring nature of the menace from extremists returning from jihad in the Middle East or becoming radicalized at home, by devouring propaganda on the internet. "Even if these words are hard to say, it's my duty to do so: There will be other attacks and there will be other innocent people killed. "We must learn to live with this threat," he told parliament, accusing opponents who suggested the Nice attack could have been thwarted of "lying to the French".
Five people are still being held over the Nice attack. Among them is a 22-year-old man to whom Bouhlel sent a text message minutes before the attack about a pistol he used to fire at the police. Friends and relatives of the 31-year-old father of three, who had a history of violence, told police he showed no interest in religion until recently. However, authorities found "very violent" photos on his computer, including of corpses, fighters posing with the IS flag and photos of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. - AFP