Back in 1995, it wasn’t uncommon to see people practice a ritual before sitting down in the subway in Paris. They would look under their seat to make sure there was no bag left unattended. In July of that year, a bomb had exploded at the Saint-Michel subway station (in the heart of the Latin Quarter, close to the Sorbonne and Notre Dame) leaving eight dead and more than 100 injured. Parisians had reasons to fear for their lives. This was one of several attacks targeting France at the time, and linked to the Algerian civil war. I remember well—I had just started attending the Sorbonne that year.
Paris has faced many other attacks in the past decades, including several targeting the Jewish community. In a notorious 1982 attack, gunmen threw a grenade and started shooting at diners at the Goldenberg restaurant, rue des Rosiers in the Marais, killing six and injuring 22. More than 30 years later, the same method would be used in some of last Friday’s attacks.
The November 13, 2015, shootings, bombings, and hostage situation add to a list of Islamist terror attacks on Paris, which include the shooting of the editorial team of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the hostage situation in a kosher grocery store last January.
As I’m writing these words, reports say at least 129 people died and more than 350 were wounded in last Friday’s attacks; 99 people are still in critical condition. Terrorists all carried powerful rifles and suicide bomb vests, which they did not hesitate to detonate. Not only were those attacks the most deadly Paris has known in the past decades, they are likely to tremendously impact the way of life of Parisians and French people in the months to come.
The Terrorists Chose Specifically French Targets
Even though I have made America and Texas, in particular, my home, my heart broke into pieces at the news. The place where I grew up, went to university, and started working was under attack again, and of the most vicious kind.
In their statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, ISIS declared targets were carefully chosen in advance. In fact, while the Charlie Hebdo attack aimed to suppress free speech, the November 13 attacks targeted activities that are dear to Parisians, symbols of the French joie de vivre: restaurants where diners were enjoying food and drinks on a Friday night, a soccer game (soccer is France’s favorite sport), and a legendary Parisian concert venue.
The attacks were obviously meant to make as many victims as possible and to change the way the French would go about their life. French President Francois Hollande started this by asking Parisians to stay home. But his recommendation was probably not necessary.
A French friend informed me that her family was okay, but had canceled everything they had planned. A book signing my mother wanted to attend on Saturday was canceled due to terrorist threats. Public libraries and museums have remained closed following the events (how symbolic that access to knowledge would be impacted). The Eiffel Tower is also closed. Some shopping centers were getting ready to reopen on some Sundays—a huge issue in France. Canceled, too. Stores remained mostly closed on Sunday.
We are all getting ready to start the holiday shopping season, and Paris is particularly crowded this time of the year. Parisian department stores are well-known for their delightful Christmas windows. I’m afraid there will be nothing delightful about this holiday season. This, too, will be disrupted.
The impact on the Parisian psyche manifested on Sunday, when crowds that had gathered around memorials suddenly dispersed after sounds similar to shootings created panicked reactions.
By definition, terrorism is meant to create a state of fear in the population. Economically, this is not good for France, of course, which is already struggling to reach an estimated 1.1 percent growth rate for 2015. More worrisome is how the country might be politically impacted by the attacks. The temptation to turn to populist voices may be easy. Although the next presidential election will take place in 2017, results from regional elections next month might give us a hint (supposing people will go out to vote). Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National Party might end up gaining more support following the events.
Mourn, Then Take Action
What can be done, then?
The French should first give themselves time to mourn their dead. Three days of national mourning started on Sunday, November 15. Emotional reactions to the attacks should then be followed by serious questioning about the effectiveness of several policies.
There are times in life when one wishes to be wrong. Sadly, I can’t say we did not see these attacks coming. Not only had ISIS warned France several times, but it is no secret that some areas of France, and some suburbs of Paris, have become fertile breeding ground for Islamization of young people and weapons trafficking. This problem should be addressed without having to play contortionist to avoid hurting the feelings of anyone.
France has very restrictive speech laws. Forbid people to engage in open debate, and unscrupulous politicians will exploit fears. Open debate would bring additional ideas, probably good and bad, on how to better fight the enemy we are facing. Anyone who opposes the attacks should be able to understand that. To use a popular expression these days, the victims of the attacks received no trigger warnings (no pun intended) before being executed in cold blood. Censoring fears will not help.
A good example would start with debating allowing the French to be able to carry guns to defend themselves and their loved ones, if necessary. Do we need further evidence that strict gun laws do not prevent criminals from obtaining deadly weapons to commit their crimes? The police will never be able to react soon enough to all dangerous situations, not to mention cases like Friday’s attacks, in which the goal is to kill as many people as possible. Someone carrying a gun might not have stopped the attacks, but the death toll might have been reduced. After the November 13 attacks, the French deserve to at least have the opportunity to debate whether gun control has made their livee safer.
Finally, although easier said than done, the French should go back to fully living their lives the way they intend to. I realize this will take time, which is perfectly normal, but I know that in the end they will.
It has been reported that supporters of the Islamic State have been cheering on Twitter about how “Paris is burning.” Paris has been reported burning before, but Paris, with the help of its allies, fought back and always managed to come out free and victorious, celebrating its renewed freedom with good food, wine, and by having fun. After all, Paris’ motto is “Fluctuat nec mergitur,” or “tossed by the waves but not sinking.”
When I left France four years ago, the practice of checking underneath your seat in the subway was long gone. Once again, let’s not let the enemy win.