I’m writing this at the end of one the bleakest weeks of a far too bleak year, trying my best to crawl out of my political depression. The rain in Paris has not ceased since Wednesday morning when I left for class, where we watched Donald Trump make his first speech as President-Elect of the United States. The rest of the week has passed by in a state of mourning for the world many of us had hoped for.
Seeking to reaffirm my basic faith in humanity, I decided to join a different kind of mourning. Today, the 13th of November 2016, marks exactly one year after the terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed 130 lives, left another 368 injured, and sent shock waves of fear through the French and European political landscapes, the ripples of which we still feel every day living our lives here.
Today, however, was about the victims. I left for Place de la République late in the afternoon to join a human chain stretching down Boulevard Voltaire all the way to the Bataclan venue, where 89 people were killed, and which was reopened last night with a Sting concert. We took each other by the hand, one by one, and marched down singing along to whatever the musicians who had brought along their instruments felt like playing. Outside the Bataclan, we lit candles by the newly-erected commemorative plaque listing the names of the victims, and gathered around the piano to keep on singing as the night fell around us.
I took a wander around the Bataclan area and Place de la République where memorials and art installments honouring the victims had been assembled on both sides of the street. Everywhere, the word L’amour court les rues (love runs the streets) were scribbled on papers, walls, and trees.
I filmed some bits here and there of what was going on around the area:
It’s been a somber but peaceful day, and I certainly know I needed the reminder of the importance of refusing to give in to fear even in dark and dangerous times. Yet, to some degree, fear has become a permanent feature in French life ever since the Charlie Hebdo and November attacks in 2015, only entrenching itself deeper with the subsequent attacks in Nice and Normandy in 2016.
“Votre sac, s’il vous plaît” is now a phrase almost as common as bonjour. The red pyramid emblem of the Vigipirate security alert system stares you down pretty much every time you enter a building, be it a university lecture hall, a museum, or just a C&A shop, reminding you that France is at its highest alert level and in a state of emergency. Security guards stand at the gates of every Sciences Po building, checking student cards and sometimes bags. You must go through airport-style security to enter a museum. Heavily-armed military patrols are part of the Parisian cityscape.
I’ve had to evacuate the university twice, once because a suspicious box was found outside the entrance, which was then detonated by a bomb disposal team. We laugh at any suspicious noises – “oops, better duck under a table!”. We sigh over being delayed by yet another bag check. Life has moved on, but paranoia has become part of it. Not that all this vigilance is unwarranted – two large-scale attacks at the Notre Dame and the Gare de Lyon train station were only narrowly thwarted in September.
People back home gave me concerned looks when I said I would be spending this year on exchange in Paris. After the Nice attacks, which punched me in the gut more than the ones in Paris as I have spent many summers there and had to call acquaintances to see if they were still safe, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of that same concern myself. UofG sent out emails expressing their understanding if France-outbound students no longer wished to go on exchange here. It was hard not to ask myself certain questions. Am I crazy for willingly moving to a country that has been haunted by so many atrocities in such a short time frame (and is likely to see more of them, certainly as long as they keep the bombs falling)? Is this how stupid people die? Do I need to take an acting class to practice playing dead?
It did not take me long, however, to put these questions aside. There is nothing we can do as individuals to protect ourselves from a terrorist attack. They are unexpected – that is the entire point. I am not significantly more unsafe in Paris as I am in the rest of Europe. This is not Baghdad.
I am far more afraid of what France will do under the banner of the state of emergency, giving in to the temptation of pretending that we are under siege, than I fear a new terrorist attack. I am afraid of Marine le Pen, the shopkeeper whom I witnessed falsely accusing a young black boy of shoplifting (votre sac, s’il vous plaît), and my neighbours in the 16th arrondissement who sneer at refugees and say that it’s a good thing I didn’t pick a studio in the north of Paris because ‘it’s just not safe, all those immigrants…’.
Due to the nature of 2016 as Officially The Worst, Everybody Else Go Home, some Glasgow students saw their exchange years cancelled because of safety concerns in the countries in which they were meant to be studying this year. My advice for any student who is concerned about going to France or any other country living under unstable conditions (which, after this week in particular, can be said to include, oh I don’t know, all of them) is to look into the statistics and facts and decide for yourself where you think the risks that are more likely to apply to you personally are coming from.
During the memorial ceremonies today, I felt like a tourist in someone else’s grief, on both a national and personal level. 13/11/2015 remains a national trauma that everyone living in France is reminded of every single day. A year ago, I may have followed the events unfold in chaos and confusion, watching my Facebook friends in Paris mark themselves as safe one by one, but today, I stood next to people who had lost their children. This is a part of French society I wish I didn’t have to learn about, but the fact that I can be on Place de la République, crossing borders, holding hands with strangers under banners with messages of nothing but love, makes me happy that I chose to be here this year. It gave me a bit of a push to start thinking about how we can hold back fear and hate in the difficult times to come.
Questions? I’m always available on Facebook or my email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).