What happened in Paris in November shocked the world. E&M‘s Lily Emamian gives her distinctly transatlantic perspective.

On the evening of Friday, 13 November 2015, I was travelling home from Gare du Nord in the midst of Paris’ electric Friday night pulse. Wrapped up in a meditation of the day, of my courses, of travel to Brussels the next morning, I felt a jolt when my phone buzzed in my hand. It was a message from a dear friend, Val, at home in the United States, asking if I were okay. There had been a shooting in Paris, she said.

Two thoughts came to mind: first, I’m not surprised. Gun violence has become a tragically commonplace phenomenon in America. Earlier this year, in fact, I lost a piece of my heart to learn about the murder of three Muslim students in my own town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In my second thought, I realised I should be surprised – this is France, not America. Guns are not easily accessible, and are therefore not as often the tool of choice for one to express his anger. Though there should be nothing “ordinary” about violence – let alone gun violence – it struck me in this second thought that whatever had happened was surely no typical act of violence. It would have been intentional, and likely meant to inflict fear among citygoers. My conversation with Val continued, and she recounted to me in my fifteen-minute metro ride the terror that continued to unfold.

I had been barely a kilometre away from the explosions at Le Bataclan and the subsequent mass shooting. Yet Val, at work an ocean away in the U.S., knew about the Paris attacks before I did. The terror became international before it was even national.

How did I respond?

I sent messages to loved ones letting them know I was okay, and to friends here in Paris, asking if they were okay. I prayed for the death toll to stop rising, and for the perpetrators not to be Muslim. Was it an overreaction to assume they might be? Indeed, immediate media speculation seeking links between a Syrian passport uncovered amongst the chaos and a suspected perpetrators’ refugee status served as reassurance that I was not alone in jumping to conclusions. However, it was not a comforting reassurance. Instead, I was overwhelmed with a sickness of grief – a fear that all the progress that had been made regarding Europe’s refugee crisis, including Germany’s decision to welcome 800,000 asylum seekers and France’s to welcome 24,000 this fall – would dissolve into frantic isolationism. I feared for the safety of the refugees known to sleep in the streets – those whose homes were then underneath highway overpasses and bridges in the Parisian hubs at République and Gare d’Austerlitz. It was that terror that kept me awake all night, checking the local news every hour, hoping to be proven wrong.

How did France respond?

Immediately following the attacks, on the morning of 14 November, France’s President François Hollande announced a national state of emergency, increased security and military presence across Paris and throughout the country, as well as his decision to close the borders. At the moment of his first decisive speech regarding the previous night’s terror, I was traversing the French countryside in a car on the way to Brussels, Belgium. I listened to Hollande’s words on the radio, clutching my American passport containing a French student visa, expecting a rigorous search and series of questions at the border. But once we reached it, there was little other than minor traffic, a border guard watching cars as they passed through, and palpable tension as drivers and passengers searched one another’s faces for shared surprise at the lack of intensity everyone had anticipated. Comments from Donald Tusk, the European Commission’s president, came next. “Good is stronger than evil”, he said. “Everything that can be done at the European level to make France safe will be done. We will do what is necessary to defeat extremism, terrorism, and hatred.”

I had been barely a kilometre away from the explosions at Le Bataclan and the subsequent mass shooting. Yet Val, at work an ocean away in the U.S., knew about the Paris attacks before I did. The terror became international before it was even national.

Brussels was much more at ease than expected. That weekend, Parisians took to social media and shared expressions of solidarity from the safety of their homes and, in small numbers, at République on the evening of 14 November. On Wednesday, November 18, Hollande enhanced France’s renewed plan to welcome thousands more refugees than before – 30,000 in total. In the darkest of moments, I thought, France was finding solace in welcoming others rather than isolating themselves, in choosing to show love’s triumph over hate.

And then came the deluge, when vengeance, an inevitable side-effect of a victimised people, reared its ugly head. Two weeks after the Paris attacks, after the pan-European expressions of solidarity and appeals to bring peace to the region, France’s declaration of war against Daesh was taking form. Relentless airstrikes, enhanced border security – particularly at refugee checkpoints – and intelligence sharing are the major pillars of the scaled-up security measures. Meanwhile, Southern and Eastern European nations – are faced with the urgent question of how to adapt their own refugee policies including how – and whether – to honour the Dublin Accords, a policy requiring refugees to seek asylum in their first destination of refuge.

The scene outside the Bataclan in the aftermath of the November attacks – Photo: Chris Bentley (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

America’s response

It is difficult to even begin writing about the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 as an American. I am aware of the possibility that my readers may see some flaw in my perspective, that it may be considered tainted by an innate desensitisation to the violence that often characterizes the tragic events we face at home. It may even be tempting to compare Paris’ tragedy to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001: states of emergency, closed borders, and a globally-resonant period of shock. But I do not wish for France the same self-fulfilling prophecy of divisiveness with which America is still afflicted. The Bush Administration’s “Axis of Evil”, which somehow became an acceptable discourse in 9/11’s aftermath, has proven not only to be counterproductive for American diplomacy. It reawakens the archaic concept of adversarial conflict, whose place in this world is fading. Hate crimes against Muslim Americans in the United States following 9/11 increased 1,700 percent according to the Journal of Muslim Mental Health, and the long and hard wars of vengeance in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

No, this is not the fate I wish to believe will be repeated in France.

But I will say that the tragedy of nearly 130 lives lost at Le Bataclan and in neighboring areas has moved the spirit of anyone with a connection to the City of Lights – and therefore the whole of Paris. “” was angry and am angry still when I think of how so many people were killed entirely at random for the purpose of planting a Daesh flag in the center of Paris, so that a group of bloody-minded bandits might claim with characteristic bluster that they could smite the unholy in his dens of iniquity”, wrote Nicholas Lucas, a fellow American student at Sciences Po, reflecting upon his divided feelings regarding 13 November and the bellicosity of the French government’s bellicose and politically-heated response.

Finding the light

As Parisians seek to find security in the aftermath of the shock, fear, and uncertainty that struck the nation, they must also decide how to move forward – how to find a new “normal”. “Fear is no longer visible in the faces of passers-by, but it is clear that the government’s palliative response to that fear is still welcomed, or at least tolerated by most Parisians”, writes Lucas.

If there is anything I can say about the environment in France, the European neighbourhood, and beyond, it is that the shock which normally follows a traumatizing event has not yet passed.

Parisians are a people known for their mass demonstrations. In the unity march following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, 1.6 million people were estimated in attendance. Today, with mass demonstrations banned following the events of 13 November, the people of Paris are unable to engage in the cathartic exercise of marching together as one people, unified by a mission to express and feel solidarity.

This brings me to close with a question for my beloved city: when are the Parisian people to decide for themselves their response, and what will it be? There is time yet for a transition in the dialogue to take place – for Paris to overcome the fear that struck on 13 November.

Photo: Fede Falces (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  • retro

    Lily Emamian is a southern-American at heart and globe-trotter by blood, she found the perfect master’s degree in the University of North Carolina’s Transatlantic Master’s Program. Coming to the end of her exchange at Sciences Po in Paris, she is researching the EU’s strategy concerning the Iranian gas sector for her master’s thesis. Outside academics, you’ll find her seeking refuge on the running trails of Parisian banlieues and conquering the city’s markets one food sample at a time.

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