The president said it, repeated it, and underlined it, from the first day of the Nice attack trial, on September 5: the specially composed assize court is not there to judge the security arrangements surrounding the promenade des Anglais, July 14, 2016. This nagging question – in a very predictable way – occupied most of the debate on Thursday afternoon. And for good reason: at the helm, Christian Estrosi, 67, midnight blue suit and graying temples, at the time first deputy mayor in charge of security, before becoming the city councilor of Nice again the following year. How could a 19-tonne truck deliberately crash into the jubilant crowd gathered on the most beautiful avenue of the French Riviera, killing 86 and injuring hundreds? How his driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was he able to carry out a dozen scoutings – on foot, by bike, in the truck – in four days without being worried? From the outset, Estrosi specifies that he did not participate in the preparatory meetings for the evening.
“Son of Nice”
“A posteriori, one can always wonder why we did not imagine what was then unimaginable throughout France”declared the one who is also president of the regional council of Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur and vice-president of the political party of Edouard Philippe, Horizons. He continues, in a courtroom more invested than usual by the press and the civil parties – often annoyed by his speeches –, regularly looks up from his text placed on the desk: “But in fact, no preparatory meeting had considered it. And today, like yesterday, nothing would prevent a mad truck attacking the crowd.” Nothing, or almost. The testimony of the elected official has sometimes turned into a plea in defense of the “video protection” and especially the “facial recognition”.
It’s no secret that these themes are the hobbies of the one who presents himself in “son of Nice” and talk about “her” Promenade des Anglais. From his first steps at the town hall, in 2008, he encouraged “a video protection system on the scale of the whole municipality”. At that time, the city had only “280 cameras and none on the Promenade des Anglais”. “In 2016, it had 1,836, including 21 on the Promenade des Anglais. Today they are almost 4,000 and there are 46 on the promenade», he states proudly. The captured images were “useful” : “The recording of these thousands of hours has enabled investigators to trace the terrorist’s journey”.
Yes, except that they did not allow to anticipate the passage to the act and to avoid the carnage. The whereabouts of the terrorist “could only be interpreted as location after the attack”, he underlines, anticipating the questions of the court. Impossible, according to him, that they are detected “by the human eye” as the operators must watch over a large number of images simultaneously. “It would have been necessary to resort to artificial intelligence but this recourse is still forbidden to us today. But I have been asking for it for many years, and since well before the attack.he argues. “Imagine we have this law [qui autorise la reconnaissance faciale, ndlr]. A red light may come on and ask us to look at what is happening [quand l’algorithme estime que cela est nécessaire]. If you don’t have a red light coming on, it’s impossible to see what’s going on.”, he insists again, responding to the president of the court, Laurent Raviot. Yes, but here it is: the National Commission for Computing and Liberties had estimated in an opinion issued in 2019 that the use of easy recognition was contrary to the 1978 “Computing and Liberties” law, that the risk of infringement of fundamental freedoms was too great.
If the court is not there to judge the safety device, some questions are inevitable. What about the municipal police force? Safety devices put in place on the Promenade des Anglais? During their testimonies, many civil parties regretted a “relief of measures”, the day after the Euro football partly hosted by the city. Christian Estrosi draws photos from a blue paper folder, insists that there was no “no relaxation”. Admittedly, no reinforced concrete guardrail lined the avenue hosting the fireworks that evening, but “the city has never been asked to use it, neither for the Prom Party nor for Euro 2016, contrary to what has been said on many occasions”, he defends himself. Laurent Raviot, placid and thorough in his questions, says: “I know that in retrospect, it’s always easy to make comments, to jump to conclusions.” Before recalling the objective of these questions, which are in no way an invitation to a security apology: “My role is to understand the chain of opportunities that will allow an individual to carry out a mass killing.”