Terror attack leaves French town grappling with fear and hatred

Many in France worry that attack will aggravate anti-Muslim sentiments coming so soon after the killings at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Women embrace on June 28, 2015, in front of the Mosque of Villefontaine in France, where about 300 people gathered  to ‘condemn the attack’ of the man who drove a van into a warehouse packed with dangerous gases in the neighbourding town of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier in an apparent bid to blow up the factory. Omain Lafabregue / Agence France-Presse
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SAINT-QUENTIN-FALLAVIER, FRANCE // The French town where a terrorist decapitated a man and targeted a gas plant is now grappling with the aftermath: a climate of heightened suspicion and division among its 6,000 residents.

Neighbours came in groups – walking and peering out car windows – to gawk at the forest of cameras that popped up on Friday on Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, near Lyon.

They were anxious to share their emotions and find out about the assault after the attacker placed his victim’s severed head with flags carrying Arabic inscriptions at a factory entrance before driving into the plant and ramming into gas cannisters.

Akin Yilmaz, a 20-year-old studying law in Lyon, was worried that the attack will add to what he said is animosity towards Muslims.

Anti-Muslim sentiments were aggravated by the assaults on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in Paris that left 17 people dead in January, he said.

“This has dirtied Islam’s reputation,” he said. “A lot of people will mix things up. They’ll believe Islam is the enemy.”

President Francois Hollande said the incident was clearly an act of terrorism.

The government has arrested a suspect, who had been under surveillance from 2006 to 2008 because of links to Salafist movements, and is investigating whether or not he has accomplices.

Saint-Quentin residents voiced concerns that show Mr Yilmaz’s fears may be well grounded.

A man who declined to be named blurted out that France is paying the price for being too hospitable to immigrants.

A woman walking by with her daughter said she does not feel safe anymore, because the neighbouring larger cities of Villefontaine and L’Isle d’Abeau have seen their populations expand in the last 10 years and now include many jobless youths who are children of immigrants.

On rue Alfred de Vigny, where the father of three lived in a four-storey building next to a small park, most people had their blinds lowered on Saturday morning and there was little activity, save a few journalists trying to find out where exactly the killer’s apartment was.

On a bench across from her apartment block, a woman wearing a veil who declined to give her name said she has never known such commotion after swarms of journalists turned up and special police emptied the building where she lives.

The woman, from Tunisia, said she raised her eight children in the compound and her husband worked for a nearby factory of chemical products.

Even the ordinary police had never come to the building in 25 years, she said.

Back in Saint-Quentin, residents were still coming to terms with the shock.

“It’s impossible to feel safe anywhere now,” said Shirley Dieude, 24, who works as a painter. “I used to think this could never happen here, in the countryside, and then last year six jihadists were arrested in La Verpillere”, a neighbouring town.

Prime minister Manuel Valls vowed on Sunday that the government is taking all necessary actions to counter the terrorist threat and ensure that the population is safe. Yet Ms Dieude wonders whether the government can effectively protect everyone from such attacks.

“It’s terrifying to think that the whole place could blow up with this plant and that nothing can be done to prevent it,” she said. “You can’t have the army guarding every single one of them, can you?”

* Bloomberg