NICE, France (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to his country's Mediterranean coast on Monday to talk about internal security, making a pit stop in the city where an extremist drove a cargo truck into a Bastille Day crowd in 2016, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds.
Macron has yet to officially confirm that he is running for a second term in France's presidential election on April 10, but his visit to the French Rivera city of Nice had campaign overtones since it is a stronghold for French conservatives and right-wing supporters.
Valérie Pécresse, the presidential candidate for the conservative Republicans party, is seen by many as the centrist Macron's most significant challenger.
Macron met with officials from law enforcement, the judiciary and the city, checking progress on security-related projects set in place in 2017 when he was elected.
The town hall meeting with dozens of law enforcement officials and local lawmakers sitting in a courtyard took place in the former Saint Roch hospital, a 19th-century building in the heart of Old Nice. During his address, Macron symbolically laid a foundation stone for a state-funded police complex in the former hospital, which is still dotted with signs for medical wards.
Still, in the 90-minute exchange, Macron hardly mentioned the current coronavirus surge fueled by the fast-spreading omicron variant. He replaced his mantra of the past months — “vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate” — with a new phrase: “protect, protect, protect.”
“We have invested heavily in our security forces to ensure the safety of our citizens,” Macron said.
“The people have the right to live in peace every single day, but there's a lot more to do,” Macron said, citing the need to curb gang violence, domestic violence, drug trafficking and sexual violence.
By 2025, the Saint Roch will become a massive police center, where over 2,000 national and municipal officers will work together with state-of-the-art technology, including video surveillance. Work is expected to start next year.
Macron’s push to tackle security issues in the heart of the French conservative political landscape appears as an effort to counter criticism from presidential challengers, including candidates on the right and the far-right who promote a hard line on security issues.
In September, Macron announced measures to make police operations more transparent, including publishing internal investigation reports and creating a parliamentary monitoring body, to improve public confidence that has been eroded by police scandals.
Rights organizations have repeatedly criticized police brutality in France, particularly against members of the country's racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Like the United States, France has been seen protests over allegations of racism, injustice and impunity when it comes to violence from law enforcement.
Macron said part of the solution is to put more police in the streets and on public transport, particularly to combat violence against women.
“It's there that women are most vulnerable and we need to do everything to protect them,” Macron said, vowing to double the number of officers dealing with domestic violence to 4,000 total.
He also called for more training for French police in dealing with victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse and assault, and detailed the enforcement of a controversial law to combat Islamic radicalization.
Three women were found dead on New Year’s Day across France, allegedly killed by their partners, despite efforts by Macron’s government to combat domestic killings.
In France's presidential race, Pécresse, a former minister and a government spokesperson, is the first woman to become a The Republicans’ candidate for president. Known as a pro-European, Pécresse in recent months has hardened her positions on immigration and security to appeal to more right-wing voters.
Two far-right contenders — Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Rally party who lost to Macron in the 2017 presidential runoff, and former TV pundit Eric Zemmour — are campaigning on anti-Islam, anti-migrant themes, accusing Macron of being soft on crime and delinquency.
On the left, Paris Mayor Anne Hidago of the Socialists and European lawmaker Yannick Jadot of the Greens are running, along with the far-left leader of the Rebel France party, Jean Lue Melenchon, who is seeking the presidency for the third time.