In Paris, France’s War on Terror Is Getting Personal

Individual stories are coming out, from the victims' open minds to the petty-criminal background of France's first suicide terrorist.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
People pay their respect to the victims at the site of the attacks on restaurant Le Petit Cambodge  and the Carillon Hotel, Paris, November 15, 2015.
People pay their respect to the victims at the site of the attacks on restaurant Le Petit Cambodge and the Carillon Hotel, Paris, November 15, 2015.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Over 100 of the 129 people who died in the Paris attacks had been identified by Sunday afternoon, as the names were slowly announced in a process exhausting for the families of the victims.

Around 100 of the people wounded are still in serious condition. The French capital is still in shock from the Islamic State’s murder campaign in the city’s nightlife districts. With the publication of the names and the stories of individual victims, it’s all becoming much more personal.

Another personal aspect is the identification of the first attacker, 29-year-old Omar Ismail Mostefai. A French citizen of Algerian origin who was born and raised in Paris and lived in a suburb, Mostefai had a record of petty crimes but was not previously known to have terrorist connections.

He wasn’t the first Islamic terrorist to grow up in France; before him were the perpetrators of the January attacks as well as Mohammed Merah, who killed three French soldiers and four Jews in shootings in Toulouse and Montauban nearly four years ago. But apparently Mostefai was the first French suicide terrorist.

On Sunday morning, the police found an abandoned car in an eastern suburb of Paris, with three Kalashnikov rifles and 10 empty magazines inside. Presumably the vehicle was used in attacks by perpetrators other than those killed in Friday’s incidents. This suggests that a number of attackers escaped, and they could have ties to the three suspects arrested in Brussels on Saturday.

Life in Paris can only be described now as half normal. The streets and restaurants are full, but cultural events have been canceled, the museums are closed and the weekend open markets did not open. Hundreds of people have been bringing flowers and candles to the sites of the attacks in the 11th arrondissement.

The story of the attacks is taking place on a number of levels. For the rest of the world, it’s one more battle in the war between the West and jihadi Islam, with the front line currently against the Islamic State.

For most French, it’s a new phase in integrating the country’s Muslim citizens while coping with Islamic extremism.

But for many Parisians, especially those in the 11th arrondissement who frequent the area’s cultural and entertainment venues, it’s much more personal. The victims were their friends, young people whose world was the city but who also looked far beyond the country’s borders.

In this neighborhood, young people’s political instinct is to protest the West’s actions in the Middle East and blame French society and politicians as much as they do the terrorists.

After the January attacks, which targeted the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the city’s Jews, the refrain was that the terrorists “hurt France,” that they hurt the liberty and democracy represented by the brash cartoonists and the integration of the country’s Jewish citizens into the republic.

Now some commentators say the attackers “hurt Paris,” that they hurt a part of the city where minorities and longtime residents lived side by side without tension — a neighborhood with a tradition of going to bars, restaurants and concerts by bands from around the world. In the new Paris of multiculturalism, it’s a Paris that’s at peace with itself.

The new Paris is Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a socialist born in Spain; the old Paris is National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whose star seems to be waxing. After next month’s local elections, in which she’s challenging in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, she could become the first regional president from the extreme-right party.

Le Pen intends to ride the wave of the attacks, calling on France to “regain control of its borders once and for all” despite EU regulations, and to get tough with radical Islamists.

EU leaders are already preparing for day-after reactions. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has called on Europe’s leaders not to change the EU’s policy of letting in hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants.

The open-borders policy was unpopular to begin with. It took another hit amid reports that the passport of a Syrian refugee who landed on a Greek island in October and crossed into mainland Europe was found at a Paris attack scene.

It’s not yet known whether the passport is genuine or whether its holder was indeed one of the attackers, even though right-wing European leaders have claimed for months that Islamic State terrorists have been slipping into Europe with legitimate refugees. It could also be that the passport was planted by one of the perpetrators to sow even more fear and tension throughout Europe.

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