How the memory of the Paris attacks is shaping France’s national psyche


The helicopters trembled from evening to morning. This is what I remember: the way the shutters shook, the sirens, the sobs coming across the courtyard of my house in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Six years after that Friday night, November 13, 2015, I remember calling my flatmate to say that he heard shots and a call from another friend who assured me that she was safe in a stranger’s house. like so many that night, they opened their doors to asylum seekers. I remember scrolling – a tragedy was played out in the tweets: confusion, attacks in a dozen locations; the death toll is on the rise.

At about midnight, then President François Hollande declared a state of emergency. Just a few hours ago, he watched France play a friendly football match against Germany at the Stade de France. During the break, he was quietly evacuated after an explosion outside the stadium. The match continued; France won 2-0 and the fans sang the Marseillaise. Previously, 39 people were killed in bars and restaurants in the east of the city, and three militants broke into the Bataklan concert hall, killing 90 people and injuring hundreds more.

The important thing is how we remember such important events, because they can shape a nation, its politics and its psyche. So says Denis Peschansky, senior fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and co-director of the November 13 Program. Over the course of ten years, from 2016 to 2026, by interviewing nearly 1,000 volunteers, including witnesses, survivors, family members, police, and hundreds who were not directly involved, the program will explore the memories of the November 13 attacks. to form and develop. Six years later, we are in the middle of a new stage in this evolution: the terrorist attack in Paris. According to Peschansky, the trial marks the moment when personal testimony interacts with and builds on France’s overall narrative of the tragedy.

The trial, which began on September 8 and is due to end in May 2022, is the largest criminal trial in French history: nine months, 20 suspects, nearly 1,800 civil plaintiffs, 330 lawyers, five judges, and a case file of over a million pages. There are fourteen defendants in the court; six, presumably dead, are tried in absentia. Only the prime suspect, 32-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who fled after the attacks in Brussels, where he was captured four months later, is charged with the murder. (The other defendants face a number of charges, including planning and aiding terrorist attacks.) The purpose of the trial is not only to establish the innocence or guilt of the accused, but also the origin and execution of the terrorist conspiracy. The court also gave a voice to survivors and the families of the victims: during October, more than 300 civilians testified, their stories became the official record of events.

In the aftermath of 9/11, French theorist Jacques Derrida described the attacks in New York as part of an “archaic theater of violence aimed at boggling the imagination” – spectacular horror. If the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 were part of this “theater of violence” – an attack not so much on the icons of capitalism as on La belle vie – Then the trial takes place in the theater of peace. Peschansky tells me that this contradicts the barbarity of attacks. The courtroom itself, specially built for the trial at the Palais des Justice in Paris, with light wood benches, glass panels and warm white light, creates an atmosphere of calm and neutrality.

In this muted arena, where a lot of pain has already been experienced, there is hope that there is room for relief. As Arthur Denouveau, a Bataclan survivor and president of the Life for Paris survivor group, described after testifying in court, this process created a kind of “serenity that is just incredible. You find yourself in front of magistrates who listen to you, and, oddly enough, you feel good there.

Other survivors pointed to the unifying potential of the narrative. “Thanks to this court” said onePierre-Sylvain: “It all becomes a collective history … our common heritage.” Another, David Fritz Göppinger, who was taken hostage in Bataklan, documents the ritual of attending the court every week in online diary series – how it connects the victims, how the courtroom has become “a vessel for memory, storing the words of the victims.”

According to Peschansky, the court also gives the victims the necessary consistency in their collective memory. For witnesses, “the hole story is potentially pathogenic”; it leaves room for doubt and confusion. But the trial could have built a more complete picture of events, acting almost like an amendment to what he called “thickening of memory.” He described, for example, how even some events disappeared. When asked in the first round of interviews in 2016 to describe their memories of November 13, many volunteers – about half of whom were not directly affected by the attacks, as bystanders in Paris and beyond – mentioned Bataclan (70 percent). and 40-45% pointed to attacks on the Stade de France and on the terraces. But by the second round, two years later, only 17-19 percent mentioned the Stade de France and the terraces. Instead, respondents tend to encapsulate events with a single reference to Bataclan or vaguely to Paris. “This is a classic phenomenon of both collective and individual memory,” Peschansky told me. “We save just enough to explain everything.”

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The trial will help bring events and moments back into history that is still being written six years later. The trials are to continue after the April presidential elections, and with security and Muslim immigration on key voter issues, litigation may become part of political campaigns. However, the way he shapes national history is also much broader than politics. While the collective memory of Friday, November 13, has so far been built around the figure of the victim, Peschansky suggests that the hero is also in the foreground – the police, the first responders, neighbors opening doors and helping the wounded. Will it then become a tale of strength and national resilience?

It may have always been this way. The helicopters only roared for so long: by Saturday, dog owners were back in parks, shoppers out onto the streets, and hundreds of people lined up outside local hospitals to donate blood for the wounded. By Sunday, Paris sat on leafy terraces, in bars and pubs, busy. Then I took it as a force of habit; I remember it now as an act of defiance.


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