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Jason Lopez who lost his mother and brother during the Bastille Day attack in Nice, in front of flowers laid out be mourners on Promenande des Anglais, 15 July 2016. Maya Vidon-White


It was the sidewalk outside the historic Le Negresco hotel where this city's anger and grief collided on Friday, in the hours after a national holiday was turned into a nightmare.

At the hotel's palatial front entrance onto the Mediterranean seafront, a crowd gathered to listen and cheer as a young policeman was berated by an irate Natalie Georges about what she saw as the security failings of the night before, when 84 people were killed by a madman driving a 19-tonne truck.

"We have all these beautiful cameras here. What did they do? Nothing!" the 54-year-old former civil servant shouted. "What did you police do? Nothing! People are dead, crushed. It's impermissible!"

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The policeman almost inaudibly acknowledged that he agreed with Ms. Georges. He later admitted that he and many of his colleagues had been given Thursday – Bastille Day – off as a holiday after working long hours during France's hosting of the European soccer championships, which ended last week. There were, he said, fewer police officers on duty at this year's holiday than in previous years.

Ms. Georges spent much of Thursday night in a panic after her daughter called her just as the Bastille Day celebrations turned into mayhem. She heard screams before the line cut out, and was left not knowing for hours whether her daughter, who escaped unharmed, had lived or died.

Ten metres away from the sidewalk argument in front of Le Negresco, 28-year-old Jason Lopez sat slumped in his wheelchair, silently weeping. He had come to place candles on the Promenade des Anglais, and to be as close as possible to where he had last been surrounded by his family.

"My brother and my mother were crushed in front of me right here," said Mr. Lopez, who is battling cancer and says he survived Thursday night's chaos only because a cousin wheeled him out of the truck driver's murderous path.

He alternated between wiping at the tears on his cheeks and taking sips from a large can of beer. "I feel completely lost. I will sleep tonight here on the street, among the flowers."

Emotions were raw across this scarred city on Friday, as citizens streamed toward the Promenade des Anglais to place flowers, candles and handmade signs. Massive white tarps were erected along parts of the seafront to protect the integrity – and dignity – of a crime scene that stretched for almost two kilometres alongside beaches that lay empty as a city mourned.

Meanwhile, police and politicians tried to reconstruct what could have motivated Mohamed Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian immigrant, to turn a refrigerator truck he had rented several days before into a weapon of mass homicide on France's most important holiday.

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French President François Hollande initially described the incident as a "terrorist attack" – promising escalated military action against the so-called Islamic State that controls parts of Iraq and Syria – only to see Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve later backtrack from that statement, admitting that the government had not yet found any links between Mr. Bouhlel and known jihadi groups.

The debate will probably do little to influence public opinion in Nice, where most are convinced that Friday's assault was the third in a string that began in January, 2015, with the shooting at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in Paris, followed by the November bomb and gun attacks that targeted restaurants, the Bataclan music club and a sports stadium in the French capital.

On a sunny Friday on the French Riviera, the anger and grief of Nice residents boiled together into hatred.

"We have to stop letting these terrorists in," Ms. Georges shouted as others around her on the sidewalk nodded their agreement. "France gives too much liberty. It's time to stop opening our doors. Stop Schengen [Europe's visa-free travel zone]. Stop. Just like the English have done. Stop."

She saved much of her anger for Mr. Hollande, scoffing at his Friday visit to Nice, where he laid flowers on the Promenade des Anglais. "He's not a war leader," she said. "We need a war leader."

It was a sentiment more quietly shared by the deflated Mr. Lopez. "We're at war with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia," he said, observing that nearly all of the perpetrators of the recent attacks on France had roots in those North African countries (although nearly all of the 2015 perpetrators were French-born).

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"It's not Iraq and Syria who are attacking us, it's not Russia. It's the Moroccans, the Algerians and the Tunisians. They come to France to get [social] assistance; they don't get it, and so they attack us."

Such sentiments, once considered extreme, are now merging with mainstream politics in France. Multiple opinion polls show Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front – who has called for France to withdraw from the visa-free Schengen Area, and vowed to fight what she says is the "Islamization" of French society – as the likely winner of the first round of presidential elections scheduled for next year (although the same polls show that she would probably lose a second-round run-off against a single centrist opponent).

Ms. Le Pen was among those speaking in martial terms on Friday. "The war against the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism has not begun; it's now urgent to declare it," she said in a statement. "To our shock and compassion, we must now add action, the necessary measures of prevention and control, and the most absolute determination to eradicate the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism."

There were fears that such angry talk might spill over into actions in Nice and elsewhere. France saw rises in anti-Muslim incidents after both the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks.

"There will be retaliation. From the bottom of my heart, I hope there won't be, but I believe it will happen," said Michelle Prost, a 55-year-old manager at a pharmaceutical company who came on Friday to lay flowers on the Promenade des Anglais. "It's three times we've been hit. … The pain is strong, and people are confused and angry."

The same could be said of many of the country's Arabs and Muslims, who are estimated to make up 10 per cent of France's population of 66 million.

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Frederick Pinel, a retired journalist who lives in Nice, said the city government had been worried about an attack of some kind for months, and recently took the step of quietly increasing security levels at local schools.

Many French Muslims feel deeply alienated from the country around them, he said. "Just go into an Arab café and listen. They're not in favour of terrorism, but they justify it. There's a deep malaise."

But even among the anger and hate on the sidewalks of Nice on Friday, the France this country still wants to be occasionally reappeared.

When Ms. Georges finished admonishing the sheepish policeman for the security failings, another woman, Noubia Terriki, stepped forward to tell her own horrifying tale of a Bastille Day no one here will be able to forget.

The 44-year-old Ms. Terriki, who is Muslim and works at one of Nice's tourist hotels, recounted how she came to the Promenades des Anglais in the aftermath of Thursday's violence, desperate to find her four children. A policeman directed her to take a look at some of the corpses that had been recovered (10 of those killed were children and teenagers).

Her children, who safely escaped the mayhem, were not there. But other people's kids were. "I saw a baby … it was crushed …" Ms. Terriki began as tears welled up in her eyes.

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Ms. Georges, so angry at immigrants such as Ms. Terriki a few moments before, reached over and pulled the stranger into a hug.

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