I have not, until now, tried to describe how it has felt to live in Paris since the evening of 13th November, when a group of young men erupted on to its unseasonably balmy streets and began a killing spree that left 130 people dead, another 100 seriously injured and an entire generation reeling in horror.
To my family and friends in England I said it felt as though this violence had been moving towards us, slowly and ineluctably, for decades (ever since the 1990s when Khaled Kelkal, one of France’s immigrant children, planted bombs in Paris and Lyon in support of the Islamist militias in Algeria). This time, however, it felt much, much closer, as though, in striking at the heart of Paris’s boho youth, “they”—whoever this shape-shifting enemy is—had got right under our skin.
Like a lot of my Parisian friends, I felt that the attackers’ apparently obscure targets in the 10th and 11th arrondissements—four unassuming cafés near the Canal Saint-Martin, two cheap restaurants and a smallish concert venue called the Bataclan—must have been known to them, that they may even have rubbed shoulders with the young, open-hearted, multicultural hipsters they would end up murdering. Perhaps they’d once wanted to belong to this glittering group, before their longing mutated into the urge to destroy it.
This atrocity, carried out in the name of Islamic State or Daesh, as its Muslim opponents prefer to call it, was aimed at, and carried out by, a particular generation. The majority of its victims were in their twenties and thirties, as were its perpetrators—who were, we’re told, mostly French nationals ranging between the ages of 20 and 31. It’s the generation to which my two eldest children, Ella (27) and Jack (29), also belong, a generation of well-travelled “digital natives,” citizens of the world with a taste for adventure, blessed with the gift of adaptability, a generation, as the TripAdvisor website will bear out, whose warmth and openness has drastically improved the experience of holidaying in Paris.
Two weeks after the attacks, death is still all around my children, having touched their circle of friends. They both live in the area—Jack near the Place de la République and Ella within sight of the Bataclan, where 83 people were killed that night. Knowing the streets and cafés where the gunmen opened fire to be the very places where my children tend to go out, people close to me sent frantic emails to make sure they were safe. I wrote back: “Thank you, they’re shaken but they’re ok.”
At the time, “ok” seemed to be the right euphemism for the strange half-state which Jack, Ella and their friends have been in since the massacres, a state of psychological “containment” somewhere between mortal fear and the intense relief of being alive. I hear people referring now to “Black Friday,” attempting, perhaps, to objectify this atrocity and to signify their sense of a before and after 13th November 2015.
Only hours after the attacks, both my children made it clear to me that for them nothing would ever be the same again: “Don’t cry, Mum,” Ella said in a voice that was unsettlingly calm. “This is our struggle (notre combat). Not yours. And we accept it.”
The word “combat”—in the mouth of this epicurean, pleasure-loving young person wedded, like her brother, to the philosophy of nonviolence—saddened me. On the Saturday evening after the attacks, despite the state of emergency and the government’s ban on gatherings and demonstrations, Jack walked over to the Place de la République. (If I’d known, I would have tried to stop him.) When he got home he sent me an email describing the experience. “It’s incredible what human beings can transmit to each other without realising it,” he wrote. “We all wanted to communicate, not necessarily with words.” He described the square, filled with people from different nationalities and ethnic groups, and the police, making gentle entreaties to disperse but unable to bring themselves to interfere with all these “beautiful human beings. It felt as if the whole world was there, present and in harmony, wondering what to build and how to connect… I saw an Arab man sobbing in the arms of an old, slightly bemused, Parisian couple… Suddenly someone put John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ on their shonky laptop and soon it began to ring through the square. The calm, the particularly gentle energy, was indescribable. I’ve never experienced anything like it.” This was the kind of phenomenon Jeremy Rifkin, the American social theorist and one of the great gurus of Jack’s generation, had written about in his book The Empathic Civilization. Jack had believed in, but never before experienced, this kind of empathy: “Our fear of each other,” he concluded, “and of death, felt completely surpassed, annihilated.”
What has struck me most about the post-traumatic reactions of Ella, Jack and their friends has been this powerful upsurge of moral courage and a deep faith in humanity. It leads me to wonder if this section of Parisian youth, so long accused of superficiality, will now be able to teach the true nature of engagement to its elders, in particular the soixante-huitards, the generation of May 1968, still stolidly defending the moral high ground.
Amid multiple apologies for her privileged background, Ella wrote to her English relatives to try and explain what she meant by the word combat: “Beyond the fear and sadness, I need hope. We all feel first the shock, the anger, the sadness but I hope we’ll overcome it by just looking at the people around us and loving them. It starts now. The war starts now. In the street I tell myself, while getting your bio-juice, look at people. While sitting in a bar eating your seeds, look at your waitress, ask her how her day is going instead of looking at your Mac. Talk to the driver of your Uber instead of looking at your iPhone. Ask the guy in the épicerie down the street how he feels, actually hear his sadness when he says ‘Islam, my Islam is not that,’ and his voice tremble with emotion at what the coming days might bring for him. But also give him the opportunity to tell you how he felt yesterday when someone said, full of fear: ‘I’m Jewish. Can I buy from your shop?’”
This urgent quest for community, far beyond the lures of consumerism, that is blossoming in this hitherto easeful generation, was best expressed in the much circulated open letter written by Antoine Leiris to the “dead souls” who killed his 35-year-old wife, Hélène, at the Bataclan: “On Friday night you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you won’t have my hatred… Of course I am devastated by this pain, I give you this little victory, but the pain will be short-lived. I know that she will be with us every day and that we will find ourselves again in this paradise of free love to which you have no access… We are just two, my son and me, but we are stronger than all the armies in the world.”