Paris Was Never the Bubble of Love and Serenity You Thought It Was

The City of Lights excels at overlooking the fact that it has long been a classic arena for political violence. But even so, Audrey Hepburn was right when she said: 'Paris is always a good idea.'

The aftermath of Emile Henry’s attack on Café Terminus in 1894.
National Library of France

The first terrorist of the Bataclan concert hall in Paris was a young man named Emile Henry: On June 22, 1893, he planned to lay an explosive device filled with nails and screws at the venue, then referred to as Ba-ta-clan, after an operetta by Jacques Offenbach. No musical performance was taking place that day at the Ba-ta-clan, but rather a ceremony at which prizes were awarded to outstanding students from the La Libre Pensée boarding school – the first secular school in France.

Emile Henry’s plot was not realized. He did, however, plan seven other acts of terror and managed to execute two of them: A bomb he laid in the Rue des Bon-Enfants killed six people, and on February 12, 1894, he detonated a steel pot filled with dynamite and nails in the Café Terminus on Rue Saint-Lazare. The pot itself came to rest in the café’s crystal chandelier, undoubtedly saving all but one patron there from certain death, though 20 were wounded, including a plainclothes policeman who pursued Henry and arrested him with the help of passersby near the Galeries Lafayette department store.

Under interrogation, Henry stated that he wished to avenge the execution of anarchist movement leader François Claudius Koenigstein, aka Ravachol, a Dutch immigrant of German descent who had been responsible for a series of murderous terrorist attacks in Paris prior to his arrest in 1892.

Henry was not alone in seeking revenge on France for its war on anarchism. In December 1893, a petty criminal named Auguste Vaillant entered the French National Assembly and threw a bomb from the press gallery that injured 60 legislators. Six months later, an Italian migrant named Sante Caserio stabbed to death the then-president of the French Republic, Marie Francois Sadi Carnot.

Hundreds of articles appeared in the press at the time addressing the difficulty of preventing acts of terror committed by lone wolves, and calling for the closing of the country’s borders, expulsion of migrants and dealing with the “crisis of values” that had ostensibly led to the birth of the new terror movement. The evident confusion of the writers is understandable, given the vagueness of the terrorists’ motives: Henry claimed he wanted “to strike at the bourgeoisie wherever they are”; Ravachol sought to “promote those values of anarchism that are suited to a just worldview”; and Caserio aspired “to battle the terrible social injustice that is caused by murderous governments.”

French high-school history teachers routinely explain that the wave of anarchist terrorist attacks in the late 19th century “disappeared as quickly as it started,” along the same lines as a French fashion trend that comes and goes, be it ponytails, miniskirts and pencil-thin mustaches. But this is only partially true.

Between December 1893 and July 1894, the National Assembly passed a series of draconian laws, at the government’s instigation, that gave a free hand to the security agencies to act without legal restrictions in the young French democracy. Leon Blum, at the time a lawyer, and later prime minister, labeled them “villainous laws,” but the opposition was unable to drum up public support against them.

Following passage of this legislation, the police detained thousands of French citizens without trial, at times for lengthy periods, and began systematically gathering information about hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. Counter-intelligence authorities instituted an eavesdropping network that was relatively innovative for its time, and the police closed down every institution, newspaper or place of business in which anyone had been documented expressing an opinion in favor of the anarchist movement.

This purge continued for three years. As Leon Blum himself subsequently wrote, the cleverness of the French lay in the fact that not only did they approve measures to harm democracy, but above all knew how to put an end to them.

When the campaign was over, it was found, as everyone had already known throughout this period, that numerous acts of corruption were perpetrated under its auspices: Police inflated charges against suspects to win convictions, spouses informed on one another to speed up divorce proceedings, landlords manufactured bogus evidence against wayward tenants, and so on. Had this witch hunt persisted much longer, Paris would not have remained the Paris that we know.

But what is the Paris that we know? The global shock at the wave of recent terror attacks there is indicative of the extent to which the world is beholden to Paris’ well-groomed branding as a romantic city devoid of worry and concern. “Paris is always a good idea,” says Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina.” And Humphrey Bogart assures Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” that, “We’ll always have Paris.” They present the City of Lights as a bubble of love and serenity, a villa in the jungle of the 20th century.

Essentially, the more one studies the history of terror, the more one realizes that Paris is a city that’s drenched in blood, more than Jerusalem and Tel Aviv put together. The word “terrorism” comes from French, deriving from the word terreur. And even the seemingly Israeli catchphrase “Stand up to Terror” is in fact a well-known declaration from the opponents of Robespierre at the Place de la Concorde.

There isn’t a single street in Paris that has not seen a terrorist act of one fashion or another: waves of stabbing attacks during the period of the Algerian occupation (hundreds of incidents over a six-year span); attacks on Jews (from Rue Copernic in 1980 to the coordinated attack last January on the Hyper Cacher market and the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices); the assaults on the Paris RER express rail by the Armed Islamic Group in 1995; as well as dozens of terror operations by ETA (the Basque separatist front), Action Directe and the Corsica Libera movement.

Why, then, the worldwide shock from this week’s wave of terror? It can only be that Paris excels at overlooking the fact that it is a classic arena for political violence, in part due to its all-powerful mechanism for self-denial. In Jerusalem – as would be the case in most other cities of the world – Café Moment changed its name after the attack. In Paris, the Bataclan is still the Bataclan. This holds true for all of the cafés where terror attacks have taken place – Terminus, Le Depart, Lipp, Café du Croissant. After a while, the terrorist attack becomes nothing more than another piece of trivia within the complex jumble of personal memories, which are more powerful than explosive devices. Because, in a normal world, human beings may declare that they have an obligation to remember, but deep down they aspire to forget.

In that respect, Audrey Hepburn was right, as usual: Paris is always a good idea.