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Despite Heightened Security, France Struggles To Cope With Terrorism

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

French leaders are facing criticism after last week's deadly terror attack in Nice. A truck driver slipped past police to mow down crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on a seaside promenade. Many people in France are asking how that could've happened, especially when France has been on heightened security alert ever since the terrorist attacks in Paris last November.

In a moment we'll hear from a Paris researcher who says the French government should do more to counter ISIS's appeal. But first NPR's Daniel Estrin reports on France's attempt to cope with terrorism and to reassure the public.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The night of the attack, Nice police officer Jean Michel Assoun got a frantic phone call from his daughter who's also a cop.

JEAN MICHEL ASSOUN: (Speaking French).

ESTRIN: She was at the police command center monitoring the security video of the Bastille Day festivities in Nice when she saw the truck plow through the crowd. Assoun says he and his colleagues responded to her alert, but by the time they arrived, all they could do was stand watch over bodies.

ASSOUN: (Speaking French).

ESTRIN: Assoon says there was nothing the police could've done that night to stop the attack. Nice is a security-conscious city. It has some 1,200 security cameras posted throughout the city. But Alain Bauer, a French security expert, says closed-circuit cameras can record crimes but can't prevent them.

ALAIN BAUER: It's one of the most efficient CCTV system in the country. But as you know, cameras don't get out from the poles to arrest terrorists with their little hands.

ESTRIN: The surveillance footage was only helpful after the fact to trace the attackers route. Even French intelligence would not have been able to prevent this attack, Bauer says, because there's no indication the attacker was in touch with any radical group.

Bauer says police probably did fail to properly secure the perimeter of the Bastille Day celebrations. The attacker skirted a barricade of police cars and drove on the sidewalk. Officer Assoon says police are stretched thin.

ASSOUN: (Speaking French).

ESTRIN: "We have worn out and abused the police," he says. French President Francois Hollande declared a nationwide state of emergency after November's deadly attacks in Paris, giving police extraordinary powers to conduct searches but also demanding they work extraordinary hours.

To boost the ranks, the French interior minister is asking, quote, "all willing French patriots" to go to military recruitment centers and enlist as volunteers. One morning this week, a handful of people came to a recruitment center in downtown Nice. One of them was Rochdi Eddaoudi, a 36-year-old former soldier.

ROCHDI EDDAOUDI: (Speaking French).

ESTRIN: "I came to show solidarity and to help my country," he said. "I'm ex-military and left the army a long time ago. I want to lend a hand to help the French people."

Thousands of army reservists have already been called up, and heavily armed soldiers in fatigues are now standing guard in small groups around Nice.

CLEMENT BENOIT: We've just been walking across with four military people with guns.

ESTRIN: Clement Benoit and his wife were taking a stroll to get a sense of their city after the attack.

BENOIT: I was talking to my wife. We just don't understand what they can do. Just there to reassure the people, you know, to make people feel safer. But I don't feel safer now. No, no, no, no, no. It's a very difficult situation France has to face now, and it's a situation which will last for many, many years.

ESTRIN: A new survey by the Institute of French Public Opinion, a leading pollster, found 67 percent of people surveyed are not confident the government is capable of fighting terrorism. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Nice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.