France steps up security as fear of attack grows

Police stand guard at the market in Nantes where ten people were injured after a vehicle was driven into crowds of shoppers. Picture: AP

Police stand guard at the market in Nantes where ten people were injured after a vehicle was driven into crowds of shoppers. Picture: AP

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SECURITY has been stepped up at public places in France for the Christmas holiday season and soldiers deployed after three separate acts of violence in three days left about 30 wounded and reignited fears of attacks by Islamist radicals.

Late on Monday, a man rammed a van into a crowded Christmas market in the western city of Nantes, wounding ten shoppers including two seriously, before stabbing himself with a knife. He survived and is being questioned by police.

That came a day after a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”) injured 13 people in a similar attack in the eastern city of Dijon. On Saturday, an attacker, also yelling “Allahu Akbar”, was shot after stabbing three police officers in central France.

“What we are seeing with events in Dijon and Nantes is that they are creating copy-cat reactions,” prime minister Manuel Valls said after ordering the deployment of 200 to 300 extra soldiers for patrols in zones such as Paris’s Champs-Elysees avenue and main shopping districts.

Some 780 soldiers have already been deployed to security patrols.

France is already on high alert after calls earlier this year from militants to attack its citizens and interests in reprisal for French military strikes on Islamist strongholds in the Middle East and Africa.

Prosecutors have opened a terrorist investigation for the first attack, after searches unearthed what they called a written “religious testament” in which the suspect invoked the Arabic word for God, “Allah”, to give him strength.

Authorities are not treating the other two other incidents as terrorism and have said those attackers both had mental health problems.

Mr Valls nonetheless said France had “never before faced such a high threat linked to terrorism”.

Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said this week France had made 118 arrests in its efforts to crack down on French nationals who leave to fight alongside jihadists in Iraq and Syria and return home as potential threats to security.

The far-right National Front has accused the Socialist government of trying to play down the Islamist threat and has stepped up its own calls for deportations of radical preachers and a tightening of border controls.

Separately, police in the Riviera city of Cannes said a man armed with two pump-action shotguns and a knife had been arrested at dawn near a local market. They said his motivations remained unclear pending further interrogation.

Yesterday, the Christmas market in Nantes was shuttered, and vendors milling around wore white armbands in solidarity but had little to do.

“It is sad. There won’t be any more Christmas spirit. People are afraid,” said Nathalie Ledamany, one of the exhibitors. “We can’t have a glass of hot wine in the evening. It’s gone wrong.”

Most people with mental health problems are not violent, despite new studies that have found links between mental illness and terrorist attacks.

Sociologists Ramon Spaaij and Mark Hamm studied 98 extremist attackers in the US. They found that 40 per cent had identifiable mental health problems, compared with 1.5 per cent in the general population.

Some dispute a link entirely, among them Jean-Marie Le Guen, a member of the French administration and physician.

“Just because someone takes an image pervasive in society at a given moment and wants to take part in a kind of violence seen elsewhere, doesn’t mean the person is motivated by politics or religion,” Mr Le Guen said.

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