If there is a spiritual heart of France, of the more permanent, enduring France, the France that has stood since the Revolution, it is here, in Paris’s Place de la République, with all its grandeur, bronze and Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité carved in stone.
This is where the French have long gathered to celebrate and protest, to show their unity and defiance—and also their irreverence. The monument at the centre of the square is often covered in graffiti, spray paint and taped-on political pamphlets.
Following last week’s massacre of 129 people, apparently carried out by the so-called Islamic State jihadist group, crowds again cover the square to mourn, lay flowers and sing La Marseillaise, state-of-emergency bans on large public gatherings be damned.
But the spiritual heart of Paris itself, at least in the sense of where that ephemeral and transient heart may at this moment beat the loudest, is, perhaps, a short walk away, deeper into the 10th and 11th arrondissements, neighbourhoods that are far from the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Élysées and other sterile avenues of high-end shops radiating out from the Arc de Triomphe.
Here, the streets, while gentrifying, are more accessible to the capital’s energetic and multi-ethnic young people—“youth in all its diversity,” as French President François Hollande described the victims from some 19 countries who were murdered on Friday night, most in restaurants and a concert hall in these neighbourhoods.
“They attacked the people who are the most tolerant in Paris,” says Ronald Hatto, a senior lecturer at the Paris Institue of Political Studies, and maybe that, too, was intentional, a strike against the city’s vibrant plurality and the generation that will shape its future. Or maybe the attackers’ intent involved no symbolism, only a desire to kill anyone and everyone. As one Parisian man told his wife: “This is the first time it felt like it could have been us.”
It wasn’t France’s first terrorist attack, of course. As recently as January, jihadists targeted the Charlie Hebdo satirical news weekly and a kosher grocery, killing 16. But what happened last Friday was different, and not only because of the number of victims.
“Even though it’s not said like this, there was a feeling that, then, there were specific targets: journalists, freedom of expression and the Jews. This time, the targets could have been anyone,” says Karim, who works in France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and asked that his real name not be used because of his position in the civil service. “It doesn’t mean that we are more concerned than before, but the feeling is different.”
Different, too, is the sense that, this time, there is no certain end to the horror. After the attacks in January, more than one million people filled la Place de la République. It was cathartic, says Karim. There’s been no similar rally this time. Any such demonstration would now be disallowed for security reasons; people also expect there will be more attacks. As many as two suspected perpetrators were still on the run as of Tuesday night, and police are searching for other possible accomplices.
Among the victims last week was Cécile Misse, who died along with her boyfriend and 87 others at the Bataclan concert hall when a trio of gunmen stormed the place, shooting randomly into the crowd, and then, for a long time afterward, at survivors who remained trapped in the hall, until police arrived and ended the siege by shooting one of the gunmen. The other two blew themselves up.
On Sunday, her friend Barthelemy Sanchez, a drama student, came to a flower-covered police barrier near the concert hall and remembered Misse for what he described as her kindness and sense of humour. “Yesterday I could not leave my house. Today was the first time I felt I could do something, to pay homage,” he says. “It was terrible, because it happened in our home,” he adds, referring to the attacks, “and we must care for each other because it is our home.”
Nearby, at a street corner where Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon restaurants face each other, crowds also gather where gunmen with assault rifles killed 15.
There is still a sign announcing happy hour on the outside wall of Le Carillon, and another advertising the bar’s mixed cheese and charcuterie plate. The windows are shattered by bullets. On of the bullet holes is stuffed with wilting flowers. Other bouquets are scattered on the ground.
“I am here because I live close by. I know these restaurants and I like this neighbourhood. I wanted to show solidarity with the victims,” says Isabelle Ferraty, close to tears. “But I think all of France is suffering, too.”
If France were to update its national motto with its origins in the French Revolution, solidarité might well be added to the existing liberté, égalité and fraternité.
The word comes up again and again among Parisians discussing the attacks and their repercussions. It has a deeper meaning than the amicable brotherhood of fraternité, implying a stronger sense of unity and obligations of mutual support.
Whether French solidarity will persist after so much blood has been spilled—in part by French nationals who reject the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, and instead kill on behalf of a foreign jihadist movement—is a question with which French people, and especially French Muslims, are grappling.
Some five million Muslims live in France. Many trace their origins to Algeria and other former French colonies.
While modern French identity is based on values rather than ethnicity or religion, in practice, many French Muslims live segregated lives and are often poorer than their non-Muslim counterparts. The suburbs surrounding Paris are full of bleak apartment blocks and have seen outburst of riots and car burnings by residents who complain of discrimination.
Some are also home to violent Islamists. Amedy Coulibaly, who, in January, killed a policewoman and four hostages at the Jewish market, grew up on a suburban housing estate outside Paris. Mohammed Merah, who, in 2011, killed seven people, including three children at a Jewish school, grew up on a similar estate in Toulouse.
Myriam Benraad, a research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, describes French Muslims travelling to Syria to join Islamic State as “the revenge of the ghettos in which we have left them forever.
“France is a disastrous society, let’s face it,” she continues. “Our society has not managed to manage its post-colonial fabric. Anybody who says black people or Arabs have the same opportunities as others in France, those people are lying.”
The right-wing National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, has campaigned against what she describes as the “Islamization of French society.” She earned almost 18 per cent of the vote in the first round of France’s 2012 presidential election.
According to Steven Van Hauwaert, a post-doctoral fellow at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, these attacks won’t necessarily result in an upsurge in support for the National Front, although he says mainstream parties, especially Hollande’s Socialist party, are vulnerable, and will become more so if further attacks demonstrate his government’s inability to protect French citizens.
Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, thinks the National Front has an opportunity to gain ground, but says that chance depends more on economic factors than on any backlash against Muslims resulting from these attacks. “If France can’t modernize, can’t reform and create some sort of dynamism in the economy, I think we’ll see a further rise in populism,” he says.
On the streets of Paris, there is little sign of resentment among the French toward their Muslim co-citizens. Some anti-Muslim graffiti has appeared, but it is surrounded by a sea of chalked messages expressing multi-faith unity. “My belief is that we are strong enough not to be drawn into what [Islamic State] wants us to be drawn into, which is civil war within our communities,” says Karim, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs employee. “But if there is another attack, and another and anther, then it will be difficult to resist.”
Karim, whose family is from North Africa, grew up in what he describes as a difficult suburb. He was raised Muslim but is now an atheist. As a child of immigrants who now thrives in French society, Karim says he is exceptional, but says his example is becoming less and less rare.
On the Sunday two days after the attacks, Karim attended service at a local church. “It was good just to be with people in my neighbourhood, even for an atheist like me. It was really inspiring,” he says while drinking white wine and eating a plate of cured meat and cheese at a local tavern. Karim says the feeling was similar earlier when he lined up for two hours to donate blood. It comforted him to look around at others of different backgrounds and religions doing the same thing, and to imagine their blood mixing together to help other French people, regardless of what faith they practised or where they came from.
Karim is optimistic about the prospects of social harmony in France, in part because he sees integration happening everywhere at a grassroots level. His girlfriend’s father, he points out, might be inclined to support the National Front. But that is unlikely to last, he says, when the man’s daughter is in love with an Arab.
These attacks present France with an additional challenge, he says. Success for France depends on whether French people can hold true to France’s declared values. “We’ll win, not by saying we have a problem with a particular community, but by trying to be the republic we claim to be,” he says. “After these attacks, and others—and there will be others—will we be up to our ideal selves?
“The question is not if we’re going to survive, but are we going to survive by losing what constitutes us as a nation?”
There is one section of French society for whom these attacks resonate in a uniquely personal way.
France has granted refugee status to some 7,000 Syrians since the civil war in that country began in 2011—a conflict that has caused some four million Syrians to flee the country, running from both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the depredations of Islamic State.
This summer, as hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria and elsewhere streamed into Europe, France promised to accept 24,000 additional refugees over the next two years.
Most of the refugees entering Europe in recent months wanted to get to Germany. In a gesture meant to demonstrate its commitment to sharing the burden of settling those refugees, two months ago, France offered to give 1,000 Iraqis and Syrians fast-track asylum applications if they came to France.
Embarrassingly, France struggled to find takers. Only about 600 agreed to come. Some now live at a recreation complex north of Paris. For them, the attacks are disturbingly familiar. “I know these kinds of terrorists. It’s why we left,” says Ali Tarabien, a 37-year-old from Damascus.
Omar, a young man from Syria who does not want to give his last name, survived the journey to Germany, despite water flooding into the dinghy in which he crossed the Aegean Sea from Greece to Turkey, and despite having to run from police in Hungary. Today, around his neck he wears an Eiffel Tower pendant given to him by a French friend.
“I want to say to French people, ‘We loved you, just like we loved each other. And we hurt for Paris, just like we hurt about what is going on in our own countries. We are sad, just like you,’ ” he says.
More difficult in some ways than reliving the terror they thought they had escaped has been the worry that French people will turn on them out of fear that their numbers include terrorists like those who struck Paris.
These concerns were particularly acute in the days immediately after the attacks, when it emerged that a Syrian passport was found near the remains of one of the men who blew himself up outside the Stade de France soccer stadium. Someone carrying that passport, which is fake, registered as a refugee in Greece last month, and that man’s fingerprints reportedly match those taken from the remains of the bomber in Paris.
“I don’t believe it,” says Tarabien, his voice breaking. “How many years of war? Four years. And how many refugees in Germany? Have you heard of any incident? The French government knows it is not us. The problem is the French people. I hope they understand it is not us.”
Some French do see a link between an influx of refugees and the possibility of further attacks. “It’s easier for terrorists from Syria to come to France now,” says Daniel Gatin, 72, at the barricade near the Bataclan, where he’s come to lay flowers with his wife, Chantal. France’s pledge to accept another 24,000 refugees is a mistake, she says. “What will we do with them?”
As a refugee, but also a resident of France for the past 10 years, Mohamad Taha can perhaps straddle both worlds. In Syria, he was an archaeologist from Palmyra, site of breathtaking Roman-era ruins that Islamic State has recently taken to blowing up. Khaled al-Asaad, the 82-year-old antiquities scholar whom Islamic State beheaded and hung from a column in Palmyra this summer, was a colleague.
Taha was having dinner with a Syrian friend the night of the attacks and saw bodies on the street while trying to get home. He says that, at that moment, he imagined seeing all his friends and family who have died at the hands of the Syrian regime and Islamic State. He also imagined himself among the victims, recalling an incident in which he was badly beaten by Assad supporters in Paris four years ago. “It was like a film playing in front of my eyes. It was a horrible scene,” he says three days later, standing among other French men and women milling around la Place de la République.
Taha then tries to explain what he believes motivated the attackers. “The terrorists want to frighten us, and the best way to retaliate is to show that we are capable of overcoming fear and resisting with a love of life,” he says.
It is what Parisians have been doing since last week’s atrocities. They have stubbornly filled outdoor cafés despite the perceived risk. They’ve avoided scapegoating and divisions. They’ve shown a solidarity that is stronger than terror.