Parisians struggle with conflicted feelings in aftermath of attacks

City still feels like a front line on Saturday morning, writes Lara Marlowe in Paris

French forensic experts go to work near the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, scene of mass shooting and bombings during Friday's wave of attacks. Lara Marlowe reports. Video: Reuters


The intersection of the boulevard Voltaire and the boulevard Richard Lenoir in Paris’s 11th district still felt like a front line on Saturday morning. Plastic sheets surrounded the ground floor of the Bataclan concert hall where some 80 people were massacred overnight by jihadists armed with assault rifles, grenades and explosives belts. Forensic police continued to work inside, attempting to establish exactly what had happened, collecting the bodies of victims and assailants in the hope of establishing their identity.

The most pervasive feeling among the neighbourhood’s inhabitants was one of déjà vu. Ten months ago, they saw the same ambulances, police and satellite television vans. Tens months ago, on January 7th, frantic friends and relatives also called and texted to make sure they survived the attack on Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people, just a few blocks away.

This time, there was less shock, more resignation. As they went about their Saturday morning errands, the residents of the 11th struggled with conflicting feelings. They want the government to do something, to act. At the same time, they are convinced that France, Europe and the west are impotent to stop the killing.

As they walked down the boulevard with their baguette and croissants, Emmanuel (41) and Laurence (45), appeared the perfect bougeois-bohemian French couple. He wore a stylish leather jacket, she a Yale sweatshirt. But there was something frightened and hesitant in their expressions. They were dining at a nearby restaurant last night when they heard the shooting, and rushed home to comfort their frightened teenage daughter. The friends they’d been dining with sheltered in their apartment until 3 am, after police warned locals not to go out.

Charlie Hebdo was more symbolic,” said Emmanuel, a doctor, referring to the targeting of the magazine that published cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. “Is it worse to kill people arbitrarily than militants who had taken a position (against Islamists)? I think this attack was more barbaric. I fear society is more mobilised by the threat to freedom of expression than crazies who slaughter at random.”

Emmanuel believes the media, particularly round-the-clock news channels, have encouraged jihadist attacks by giving them so much publicity. “We have to avoid spreading the idea that they can become martyrs,” he said, standing 50 metres from the place where four jihadists blew themselves up when commandos stormed the concert hall. “TV has to stop showing terrorised people crying in the streets and bodies on stretchers, because that’s their objective. It feeds their fantasies.”

“It’s been like this for years, in Israel, Lebanon, most of the Middle East,” said Laurence, the commercial director for a software distributor. “People there live in total insecurity. Today, it’s the same for us. No place is safe; not London, Paris or Madrid. The world has gone mad and we have to live in it…. The Charlie Hebdo attack didn’t change our lives. There’s no reason why this one should.”

The greatest danger, Emmanuel said, is that the seven or eight men who killed more than 120 people were probably French, like the Charlie Hebdo assassins. A Syrian passport was reportedly found near the body of one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France. Investigators want to know if the assailants were radicalised Frenchmen, and whether they had fought in Syria.

Mahmoud Aouam, (40), a restaurant manager, also lives near the Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo. He fled the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s. “I saw terrible things there. It was like living in a black hole. For me, Paris meant safety, love and security in a mixed society. I felt safer here than I would have in New York or any other city. It’s like the nightmare has caught up with me. Now I wonder if I should go to the shopping centre, take the metro, go out late at night…”

The perpetrators of the overnight attacks were not real Muslims, Aouam maintained. “Just because you shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ doesn’t mean you’re a Muslim,” he said.

He blames western government for the explosion of jihadist violence.

“They shouldn’t have abandoned all those countries – Iraq, Syria, Libya – to stew in poverty and dictatorship,” he explained.

Alain (75), the owner of a tool factory, was carrying groceries home. “What strikes me is we’ve been on maximum security for nearly a year, and they could still do this. Look at that police van down the street,” he said. “It’s been protecting a Jewish radio station since Charlie Hebdo. It’s within sight of the Bataclan, and it made no difference whatsoever last night.

“We have to get used to this. It isn’t over,” Alain continued. “We have to be more severe. There’s no more liberty or equality in this country. As for fraternity…” he nodded towards the Bataclan. “We need leaders who act strongly against all the people who don’t belong here. They cost us dearly, and do us great harm.”

“Maybe if we hadn’t bombed (Islamic State targets in Syria) this wouldn’t have happened,” mused Eric Aquaba, the director of a computer company and a mixed race Frenchman from Guadeloupe. Like many of the passersby, he and his teenage son had come out of curiousity, to see the scene of the slaughter. “Maybe we shouldn’t have bombed them, but we cannot just be spectators…”

If anything, residents of my own central Paris neighbourhood, several kilometers from the Friday the 13th attacks, were more shocked than those of the 11th. Assem, my Syrian newspaper vendor, himself a refugee from Aleppo, greeted me with an agonised expression and silence. When I ran into Pierre, my ageing first floor neighbour, he fleetingly embraced me, saying: “It’s horrible. I didn’t sleep all night.”

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