April 27, 2017 / 5:44 PM / 3 months ago

Attack-hit city of Nice split over Le Pen vote in French presidentials

Concrete bollard barriers provide security on the Promenade des Anglais that were installed after the July 2016 truck attack, in Nice, France, April 12, 2017.Eric Gaillard/File Photo

NICE, France (Reuters) - Taking a break from his morning jog on Nice's seaside boulevard, the Promenade des Anglais, 62-year-old Dominique Eche gets tears in his eyes when he recalls being around the corner when an Islamic State attack killed 86 people there last Bastille Day.

The sports coach's children jumped down to the beach below to avoid the truck that ploughed into the crowd, and he says it is important to him to keep jogging there to show life goes on.

But when he thinks about the presidential election, and far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen's insistence that her tough line on security will prevent such atrocities, he gets angry.

"I saw the Nice attack from the inside and I find it appalling to try and benefit from such attacks, to say: 'It wouldn't have happened if I'd been in power'," Eche said on Thursday, speaking hours before an election rally by Le Pen in Nice.

Next to him, workers were erecting concrete bollards to make sure trucks cannot access the pavement there any more.

The FN has said some of the Islamist attacks that have killed more than 230 people in France since 2015 would have been prevented had it been in power, thanks to a platform that includes locking up French-born suspected jihadists and expelling foreign ones as well as scrapping the European Union's open-border arrangement.

This resonates with some voters in Nice, where one in four voted for Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, against 21.3 percent nationally, as she qualified for the May 7 runoff behind centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Describing the city as a "martyr of Islamist terrorism," Le Pen told the rally her first move if elected would be to reinstate border controls, to wide applause from a crowd of a few thousand.

"I have asked for it after each attack ... how can we think we are protected if terrorists can move around freely, if weapons can circulate freely?," she said, detailing a law-and-order platform she said would apply "without weakness."

Guy Paillet, a 63-year-old ex-fireman in the audience, said the attack had encouraged people to vote for the FN. "She's telling it as it is. We need to build back borders," he said before the rally, wearing a giant blue-white-red hat with the French flag's colours.

"Not Safe"?

While opinion polls all say that Macron will easily beat Le Pen in the second round, the head of France's south east region and deputy Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, a conservative, warned against considering it was in the bag for the young centrist.

"Le Pen can win," he told Reuters.

Local FN representative Lionel Tivoli said FN membership in Nice's Alpes-Maritimes department had jumped from 740 two years ago to 3,500-4,000 now, driven in particular by the attacks.

"What strikes people is that this attack took place where they live, here in the Alpes-Maritimes," Tivoli said in the FN's local headquarters. "We're not safe anywhere anymore."

The 31-year-old Tunisian who drove the truck had a history of violence and brushes with the law, and had been handed a suspended six-month prison term for road rage a few months earlier.

Under the FN, Tivoli said, "this attack would have been avoided because he would not have been roaming free in Nice's streets".

Hubert, a 70-year-old FN supporter who said he does not miss a chance to see Le Pen at a rally, said the attacks had reinforced his resolve to vote for her. "We need to feel safe," he said, adding derogatory comments about Arabs.

But 79-year-old Nice resident Roger Blanc, who backed conservative Francois Fillon in the first round and will vote Macron in the second, took a very different view.

He said: "I was very shocked by the attacks. But what would she (Le Pen) have done about it? What would she have done? Nothing. It's all just talk."

Le Pen's first round score in Nice was up by two percentage points since the 2012 election, but this was a smaller increase than in her national score.

Gilles Ivaldi, a specialist in the FN at the University of Nice, said this was partly because the local mainstream right was also strong in Nice, and took a hard line itself on issues such as security.

Additional reporting by Miranda Alexander-Webber and Matthias Galante; Editing by Andrew Callus, Kevin Liffey and Philippa Fletcher

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