Terror Attack Leaves French Town Grappling With Fear and Hatred

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.

Neighbors came in groups -- walking and peering out car windows -- to gawk at the forest of cameras that popped up 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 says 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 in an interview. “A lot of people will mix things up. They’ll believe Islam is the enemy - so little time after Charlie Hebdo, it’s bound to lead to confusion and misconceptions.”

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.

Mounting Suspicion

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

As he tried to work out why the attacker displayed his former employer’s severed head behind the plant rather than in the front, 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 doesn’t feel safe anymore, because the neighboring 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.

In Saint-Priest, the modest Lyon suburb 19 kilometers away where the suspected terrorist lived, the atmosphere is tense but more subdued.

Suspect’s Compound

On rue Alfred de Vigny, where the father of three lived in a four-story 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, says 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.

Feeling Vulnerable

Back in Saint-Quentin, residents still digested 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 neighboring town.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed Sunday that the government is taking all necessary actions to counter the terrorist threat and ensure that the population is safe. Yet 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?”