France was torn between fear and incomprehension today after three random knife attacks on police and pedestrians in three days.
In the latest incident, a van driver rammed shoppers at a Christmas market in Nantes on Monday night, injuring 17 people.
The driver, who stabbed himself in the chest after the attack, was identified as a 37-year-old white Frenchman, with a history of petty crime. A similar attack on pedestrians in Dijon 400 miles away on Sunday night was carried out by a 40-year-old man of Arab origin with a long history of psychological troubles.
Investigators believe that there was a "copycat" connection between the two ramming incidents.
They have dismissed all links with a knife attack on a police station near Tours in central France on Saturday evening. In that incident, a 20-year-old Frenchman of African origin, a recent convert to Islam, was shot dead after slashing three police officers with a foot-long knife.
In both the Dijon and the Tours incidents, the attacker is reported to have shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).
The assault on the police station is being treated as an isolated attack with terrorist overtones, carried out by a disturbed individual. Sunday's Dijon van ramming attack, in which 11 pedestrians were injured, has been declared by the local prosecutor to be a “non-terrorist” act by a “confused” man who has made 157 visits to psychiatric units in the last 13 years.
The Socialist-led government called for “calm” and “vigilance” yesterday and insisted that the three incidents should be treated separately. The Prime Minister Manuel Valls said such a “series of dramas” was disturbing but there was no cause for “panic”.
He had, himself, been accused of ratcheting up fears on Monday by saying that “France has never been in such danger from terrorism”.
The far-right political leader Marine Le Pen has accused the government and media of deliberately “minimising” the first two incidents which she insisted were Islamist “terrorist attacks”.
Ms Le Pen was uncharacteristically silent about the third incident on Monday in which a 37-year-old white man, with no known political or religious affiliations, drove his van into a crowded Christmas market in Nantes. The man, named only as Sebastien S, stabbed himself several times in the chest after the attack. He was seriously ill in hospital today.
Police believe that this was a copycat act, possibly influenced by the constant repetition of the Dijon ram attack on 24-hour news channels.
The French media has also been torn between hysteria and calm.
The newspaper Le Parisien carried a banner front-page headline today “Peur sur Noel” (Fear at Christmas). The newspaper said that it was irrelevant whether the attacks were a “low cost” terrorist campaign or a series of random acts by psychologically disturbed individuals. Either way, the attacks were all the more terrifying because they were so unpredictable and impossible for the authorities to forestall.
The centre-right newspaper Le Figaro bundled both the Tours and Dijon attackers together as the work of “fous de Dieu” (religious crazies) – despite the insistence of the state prosecutor in Dijon, Marie-Christine Tarrare, that the van attack on Sunday was not motivated by politics or religion.
Ms Tarrare said that the attacker – identified only as Mohammed –told investigators that he had shouted “Allahu akbar” only to “give himself courage”. She said that he had spoken “incoherently” of taking revenge for “Chechen and Palestinian children” but had no links or sympathies with extremist islamist groups. He had not been “self-radicalised” on the internet because he did not even have an internet connection at home.
The man who attacked the suburban police station near Tours on Saturday is proving more difficult for investigators to define. Bertrand Nzohabonayo, 20, born in Burundi, converted to Islam a couple of years ago.
He is described by his parents and friends as a gentle, depressive, sporty man who – unlike his radical brother – had no known interest in jihadist movements. Investigators found, however, that he had posted the Islamic State flag on his Facebook site two days before his attack.
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