On Thursday, as its people wearily battened down for their second lockdown, France was dealt a most brutal reminder that its other pandemic remains virulent, cruel, and remorseless.
At 8.30am, in the cavernous serenity of Nice's Notre-Dame basilica, 60-year-old Nadine Devillers knelt near the font in silent prayer. Brahim Aioussaoi, a 21-year-old Tunisian, stole up behind her and cut her throat, almost severing her head. He then turned his blade on Vincent Loquès, the sexton (church warden), who had just opened the doors for morning prayers. Mr Loquès, a 55-year-old father of two, died on the spot, his throat slashed. Finally, Aioussaoi attacked Brazilian-born Simone Silva, a 44-year-old carer for the elderly and mother of three. She ran from the cathedral to a nearby restaurant, where she died minutes later of multiple stab wounds. As police gunned the attacker down, he reportedly shouted 'Allahu Akbar'.
Jean-François Ricard, chief anti-terrorism prosecutor, said Aioussaoi had arrived in Europe in September, and reached Nice on the morning of the attack. He knew none of his victims personally. They were chosen 'for the sole reason that they were present in the church at this time'.
France was shocked, but it was not surprised. How could it be? People were still digesting the last atrocity, less than two weeks earlier: the beheading by an 18-year-old Chechen of a young history teacher, Samuel Paty, in the sleepy commuter town of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine near Paris. The attack followed a lesson about freedom of speech, in which Mr Paty had shown his students some of the notorious Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. His murderer, Abdoullakh Anzorov, followed Mr Paty from the gates of the middle school where he taught, and beheaded him in a nearby street with a 30cm knife, shouting 'Allahu Akbar'. Anzorov was shot dead by police. In a social media message to President Macron, discovered afterwards, he said: 'I executed one of your hellhounds who dared to belittle Muhammad'.
Scottish readers may wonder what a history teacher was doing, instructing children in freedom of speech and the fanaticism of those who deny it. To the French, nothing could be more natural, which is why this killing is so shocking. History holds a special place in the French respect for teaching. It is not the litany of faded military and imperial glories through which a British curriculum trudges. It can be a little romanticised. It is about how a diversity of tribes coalesced to overthrow their oppressors and unite in liberty, equality and fraternity to form a strong, progressive society. History, in French schools, is not about wallowing in yesterday, but about explaining today.
Nor was the Paty murder, vile though it was, entirely unexpected. Ever since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France has been on high terrorism alert, with armed platoons of squaddies now a daily sight on the streets of major towns, though to only limited avail. A morbid succession of attacks followed the magazine killings: teenage concertgoers in Paris, a Christmas market throng in Nantes, children in Montauban, soldiers in Toulouse, football fans in Saint-Denis, a policeman and his partner in Magnanville, an 84-year-old priest in Rouen, a fireworks crowd in Nice. Many more attacks have been foiled. The death toll since 2015 is approaching 300, with more than 1,000 people injured.
Even so, these two latest killings have shaken a population that believes it has enough to endure from an escalating coronavirus death toll. The Senate on Friday bemoaned 'un enchevêtrement de crises' (an entanglement of crises). On the evening of the Paty murder, I was accosted by a stranger of about my own age at a Montpellier tram stop. He was presentably dressed and neither drunk nor importunate. He just needed to talk to someone about how he was feeling. He was extraordinarily angry. His tirades about a young man slaughtered for just doing his job came faster than my plodding French could process them, and intensely enough to discourage me from interrupting.
When I finally did manage a response, he realised I was a foreigner and immediately insisted that his condemnation was aimed at the generality neither of Muslims nor of immigrants. France, he said, was tolerant and welcoming to Muslims. What these 'animaux' were, was Islamists.
This distinction is generally respected in France, but you have to wonder how much more savagery it can withstand. The state is officially blind to all distinctions of race, creed or colour. Yet Montpellier and Toulouse both projected the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on municipal buildings in defiance after the Paty murder. Some might equally point to the concentrations of migrants of Middle Eastern or North African origin in low-paid jobs and low-grade housing, or to President Hollande's hijab ban.
The guiding theme of French immigration policy is integration, rather than the British way of multiculturalism: everyone who settles here is expected to behave as if they were French. Yet, like individuals everywhere, people hold variable views, and the far right stands ever eager to exploit hostility. Few French people think that every Muslim is a jihadist. But a focus upon the doctrinal motive for the attacks intensifies with each atrocity.
Nor does French public discourse bother any more to mince its words about this. 'Barbarie Islamiste' was a typical headline the morning after the Nice killings. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, called it 'Islamo-fascisme'. Interior minister Gérald Darmanin, somewhat foolishly, said he now felt uncomfortable seeing foreign food on French supermarket shelves.
President Macron said it was an attack on France itself. 'Our country suffered an Islamist terrorist attack,' he said. 'It is very clearly France that is attacked.' He might have added that the latest murders follow his promise on 2 October of a law to strengthen French secularism against 'Islamist separatism', taken to mean Sharia law. He sees a duty as head of state to transmit his people's anger at the wounds they have borne. Yet his strident tone has its critics, both foreign and domestic.
To the fundamentalist Iranian press he is the 'Demon of Paris'. Tricolours have burned in Baghdad. Turkey's intemperate president, Recep Tayyip Erdroğan, accused Macron of waging 'a campaign of hatred' and, no more impressively than Darmanin, declared a boycott of French produce, prompting France to withdraw its ambassador. Undiplomatic ruderies have since been flying back and forth between Paris and Ankara. Domestic critics worry that Macron is putting himself, and therefore France, in the front line of European opposition to Islamic activism, a course with obvious dangers, especially given France's colonial history in several of the aggrieved countries. Anzorov's internet message called Macron the 'leader of the infidels'.
All this at the outset of a month, maybe more, of a country under house arrest once more because of the second wave of COVID-19. Will deserted streets and public buildings make it harder for jihadists to strike, or will it prevent public vigilance? Will confinement calm the fury that so many French people feel at these attacks, or will it make them brood on their anger? All one can say with certainty is that France has rarely felt less at ease than it does this week.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster