PARIS – On the day after the terror campaign in Paris that left 129 people dead and more than 300 wounded, residents of the French capital are still trying to absorb what hit them.
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By evening, after they had avoided gathering outdoors all day on the orders of police, hundreds of people started to assemble at the Place de la Republique, only a few hundred meters from the Bataclan concert hall where four terrorists had held hostage hundreds of people for more than two hours, killing 89 of them. From Boulevard Voltaire, where the hall is located and which was closed by police, ambulances carrying the bodies of the victims would emerge every few minutes, sirens wailing. As of last night only a handful of the victims had been named.
A group of friends was standing near the candles that had been lit at the foot of the monument at the square, trying to find out if the waiter that had served them at La Belle Equipe, one of the restaurants attacked in the 11th arrondissement, had been killed.
“It’s very personal, what’s happened,” said Stephan Byatt, an actor who lives on a nearby street. He has a hard time finding the words to describe what he’s feeling. His friend, Bruno Michlaud, a graphic artist, tries to help out. “It’s a symbol of Paris, a symbol of life. They hurt us in the center of our lives and each of us could have been one of those killed.”
But they aren’t angry, at least not at the perpetrators. “They’re stupid, but they aren’t evil,” their friend Sabrina, an administrative worker in one of the theaters in the 11th arrondissement, said. “They are victims of a system that excluded them from society, that’s why they felt this doesn’t belong to them and they could attack. There are those who live here in alienation, and we are all to blame for this alienation.”
Ten months after the previous wave of terror in Paris that hit the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher kosher supermarket, one might assume that residents would feel a sense of continuity, but that didn’t seem to be the case. “Then they harmed journalists and Jews, those were defined targets,” said one of the young people who had come to the square. “Now it was an attack with no objective, anyone could have been hurt.”
One member of the group said they had come to the square to demonstrate “unity,” but they didn’t seem to feel solidarity with the victims of the last wave of terror. There were signs calling for unity, but it wasn’t clear what they were meant to unite around.
“After the attacks in January, they said we should unite, but that essentially meant that we should be together and not think independently,” says Clemens Mama, a teacher. “They don’t want us to think that maybe it’s connected to the policies of our government and of the United States in the Middle East.” No, she wasn’t surprised that the attackers apparently included people who were born and raised in France. “These are people the government gave up on, and you have to ask why,” she said.
No one wanted to talk about Islamists or the Islamic State, even after it took responsibility for the attacks and French President Francois Hollande announced that the group was behind them. “Daesh is so dangerous to France,” said Johann Crispel, a business student at a college near one of the restaurants that was attacked, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State and wrinkling his nose as he enunciated it. “Perhaps it’s correct to bomb them in the name of democracy and freedom, but it brought the war in Syria to us in France. I don’t think it’s worth it.”
It was hard to find anyone at this gathering who would say a bad word about the attackers, and expressions of patriotism were restrained. Perhaps it should be no surprise in this part of town. Most residents of the 11th arrondissement are what the French call “bobo,” bohemian and bourgeois, middle-class academics in their 30s and 40s with clearly leftist leanings. It’s a tolerant area, where migrants and minorities feel safe walking around. Among those who had assembled were several mixed-race couples. Now the restaurants and bars that they frequent every night were attacked and some of their friends were killed and wounded, and they were having a hard time reconciling this with their worldview.
A woman standing outside the La Carillon bar, one of the establishments targeted, started softly singing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, but no one joined her, in stark contrast to the powerful singing heard Friday night when the crowd was evacuated from the Stade de France Friday night after the suicide bombings outside it.
Almost no one who had gathered near the sites of the attacks held flags. Jean Marc Montaine, an older man who was carrying the Tricolore, felt unwanted and distanced himself from the others. He was dismissive of the bleeding hearts, however. After the three days of national mourning, he said, “There will be plenty of flags here.”