After a few days of shock and emotion, French citizens are looking for the reasons for such an inhumane act, carried out by a Tunisian immigrant who only very recently fell into the trap of religious fundamentalism.
After years of leading a dissolute lifestyle during which he abused drugs and bisexual relations, he turned to fundamentalism to quench his thirst for violence, and there were very few clues that he was about to commit such an act.
The French routine
Over the past two years, France has been struck by a series of terrorist attacks. Some were directly orchestrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), such as the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 or the attack on the Bataclan concert hall in November the same year.
Others, such as the lorry massacre in Nice, were the acts of isolated deviant attackers for which ISIL saw an opportunity to claim responsibility.
In any case, terrorism has now become part of the daily life of the average French citizen. The question is no more whether there will be an attack, but when.
If the choice of Bastille Day is eminently symbolic as France was celebrating the values of freedom, equality and fraternity, the fact that the recent attack occurred in Nice is likely to have lasting consequences.
The only viable answer to terrorism is a reaffirmation of the French Republic on the pillars of what constitute its strength: free education, societal cohesion, secularism and welfare state.
Nice is one of the major cities of France’s south, which has been regularly flirted with by the xenophobic far-right party the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen.
Its mayor, Christian Estrosi, is a conservative and populist right-wing hardliner from the Sarkozy clan.
Last December, Marion Marechal Le Pen – the latest politician from the Le Pen dynasty – came close to winning the regional presidency, which would have provided a platform for the extremist rhetoric of her party.
Such a demagogical drift to the right in French politics would be a boon for ISIL, which will largely benefit from the rise of Islamophobia and racism in France.
Far from the relative concord after the first terror attacks last year, opposition leaders seem to have engaged in a competition over who can be the most critical and martial – losing all sight of restraint in a personally motivated political quest.
This short-sighted strategy plays right into the terrorists’ hands as it increases their appeal to radicalised outcasts for whom each act of Islamophobia fuels their desire for violence.
Similarly, a solution limited to ramping up strikes on ISIL strongholds in Syria and Iraq would be doomed to failure.
A war on terror cannot be won with bombs alone. The reason why ISIL has so heavily targeted France is partly that the French republican model of secularism and cosmopolitan society is what terrorists strive to destroy.
Their objective is to argue that Islam and republican democracy are incompatible, and ISIL therefore advocates the destruction of the latter in favour of a religious and fundamentalist society.
The recent irresponsible, demagogical claims from the French right-wing parties are, therefore, the best allies for ISIL.
The most active terrorist cells in France, such as the Buttes Chaumont network, responsible for the attacks in Paris, have emerged around the same time as the Sarkozy administration engaged into a populist debate on national identity in the hope of overtaking the National Front on its own political turf.
Reaffirmation of values
The only viable answer to terrorism is a reaffirmation of the French Republic on the pillars of what constitute its strength: free education, societal cohesion, secularism and the welfare state.
The anger of the French population is understandable. But booing a prime minister at the commemoration ceremony for the loss of innocent lives is not the smartest idea.
No intelligence service could have prevented the Nice attack as nothing in the profile of the lunatic who drove over 84 people could have suggested a potential link to terrorism.
The only option for France today is to stand proud on its secular republican values, multiply the satire that fundamentalists want to shut down, encourage societal inclusion, educate and educate again.
A turn to the extreme right would mean a victory for the terrorists. However painful it is, the best way to prevail for the French is to stand strong and resist the populist temptations.
Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.