NICE, France — It's becoming a hallucinatory new normal in France: one month ago, 17 people killed in two terrorist attacks in Paris; last week, a knife attack in broad daylight on French soldiers guarding a Jewish center in Nice; and now, the news Monday that police officers were shot at by a gang of hooded gunmen in a Marseille ghetto that was promptly put on lockdown.
“We're under siege," Samia Ghali, a senator from Marseille, tweeted Monday. Later she added: "This my worst nightmare. We're in a state of war. You talk about Syria? We are living like Syria in this area."
Early reports indicated that Monday's shooting was not a terrorist attack but involved gang and drug violence in La Castellane, a notorious low-income housing project in the north of Marseille. The incident took place just before the scheduled arrival of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who was visiting, ironically, to celebrate a new lower crime rate in France's second-largest city. No one was reported injured in the shooting, although an estimated 7,000 people were told to return to their homes and the area was sealed off for much of the day.
But the overall psychological impact—masked thugs in Kalashnikovs shooting at cops and the resulting images of hundreds of special forces police in riot gear securing the area on TV—is stoking a new kind of "Mad Max" fear in France, one that's becoming familiar at almost warp-speed.
"There's starting to be a very thin line between what has taken place in these areas for years and what can at least look like terrorism," Christophe Crepin, spokesman for UNSA, France's police union, told The Daily Beast. "These types of thugs have been around for a long time. What's different now is that they are influenced and empowered in look and style by images and videos online and on television from terrorists in the Middle East."
French criminologist Alain Bauer, an advisor to several administrations in Paris, has warned against what he calls “a sort of hybrid, part common criminal and part political.” His studies trace the phenomenon back to the 1990s, and he says it is increasingly hard in many parts of the world, not just in France, to differentiate gangsters and terrorists. But few countries in the West are feeling the effects quite like this one.
Bryan, 53, who lives two hours east of Marseille in Nice, said Monday he wishes he had more than the baseball bat he bought last month to defend himself even though, rationally, he knows the odds of being attacked are very low.
“Sounds crazy to say this and I know it’s not true but I feel as if they’re going to come kill us in our beds,” said the British man, who was afraid to give his last man. “It’s like they’re at the gates of Vienna.”
He has lived in Nice for ten years, but ask him what “they” means and he doesn’t really have an answer. He considers himself politically left of center and would never vote for France’s far-right, anti-immigration party, the National Front. Still, his apartment in Nice is near a mosque and on weekends, “all you hear is Arabic,” he says. “It never used to bother me. I hate to say it, but now I’m scared.”
Some French Jews are so scared that they're leaving France.
"It's over," said the French owner of a sushi restaurant in Nice who is Jewish and plans to emigrate to Israel with his wife within the next two years. He asked that his name not be used. "France will have a Muslim president in 10 years. There's no safety left here anymore."
Carole Davis, who was born in France and lives in Nice half the year, said she doesn't feel French police are prepared for this new wave of violence and that scares her, especially since she is half-Jewish.
“I’m definitely creeped out by this,” says Davis, who lives a few blocks from where 30-year-old Moussa Coulibaly stabbed three French soldiers last week in Nice. “I’m just Jewish enough so some guy could eye me the wrong way and slit my throat.”
Davis said the televised images of the Paris attackers in black ski masks—so similar to the now almost iconic symbol of the ISIS fighter with a Kalashnikov brandished aloft—are haunting, and add to the sense of the terrorist as modern-day bogeyman.
“A lot of these thugs are the ages of guys who watch violent video games,” Davis said. “They’re all of the gaming age and ISIS fighters look like those characters. Except they are real. They’re real and they’re in the Middle East. They’re video game characters brought to life so it's natural to copy them."
Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and principal investigator at the school's National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, said ISIS-inspired terrorist chic is frighteningly potent on many levels.
“New York City was dangerous in the 1970s, but it was a different kind of fear than you see in France today,” says Arie Kuglanski. “The powerful and graphic images of ISIS fighters in masks that hide their faces, and rifles, are working not only to scare people but give disenfranchised young men in France a sense of empowerment so they may be more likely to dress and act out like them.
Marseille's La Castellane neighborhood, by all accounts, contains many of the ingredients that produce such disenfranchised young men.
"It's got everything—prostitution, drugs trafficking, violence. It's a dangerous cocktail and we saw evidence of that today," Samia Ghali told BFMTV.
Kuglanski said the ISIS uniform “is scary and aggressive, even Satanic, a way to dehumanize yourself while committing atrocities." Or even shoot at police when all that's at stake is local drug trafficking.
“It means you can put that outfit on and go do things without having to go to the Middle East,” he said. “You can feel powerful and significant by copycatting them. Al Qaeda's mission involved taking down symbolic targets, but ISIS is inspiring a new kind of terrorism, one that you feel can take place anywhere anytime, in the supermarket, in the theater, on the street, without any kind of warning. That's scary, and that's what the terrorists want."
Davis said she fears the random attacks will continue if the French government doesn't step down hard.
"If not, French people are just going to hate all Muslims and that's not fair," says Davis. "All this is happening really because of just a few rotten people, but if France is not careful, they are going to have a devastating impact."