Voices from Paris speak of a nation, once more tolerant than most, turning to accommodate extremist leanings
On Saturday, the French tricolour flew at half-mast over Paris’ Elysee Palace, the official resident of the French president, after 127 people were killed in a series of terror attacks across the French capital, including at Bataclan, a 150-year-old music hall, which the highest casualities from among fans attending a performance by American band Eagles of Death Metal.
A photograph of entrepreneur Viren Shah (in red) with actor Dilip Joshi (extreme left) and friends taken in Paris on Friday
President François Hollande said the atrocities were, “against France, against the values that we defend everywhere in the world, against what we are: A free country that means something to the whole planet.”
(L) Francoise Steibel and (R) Shoba Shakti, an author and former LTTE child soldier, who now lives in Paris
Pierre-Alexis Hermet, a 26-year-old designer who works at perfume boutique Thierry Mugler, was barely 200 metres away from Bataclan, in Rue Amelot. Around 10 pm on Friday night, he was celebrating a friend's birthday at a shop, when he saw people running on the streets terrified.
“When I asked around what was happening, they said some men were seen shooting in the concert room. We closed the shop immediately, and rushed into a building to stay safe,” said Hermet over text messages to SUNDAY mid-day.
On Saturday afternoon, Hermet was still stranded at a friend’s place since the streets of Paris were blocked and a curfew had been imposed for the first time since WWII. “Last night, Paris was frozen. Shops are still closed; and I can see from the window that there aren’t too many people out.
The city is at war. The police and military are everywhere. Even 10 people aren't allowed to gather at a spot,” he added. While the Eurotunnel continued to operate, high-profile Paris institutions including the Eiffel Tower were closed down indefinately.
Mumbai-based entrepreneur Viren Shah was in Paris until Friday, just a day before the attacks. “I am not surprised that the attackers managed to breach security,” he said from Cannes, where he was holidaying with friends including television actor Dilip Joshi, whose 50th birthday celebrations were scheduled to be held on the trip.
"It was surprising to see not a single policeman on duty when I'd take a morning walk around Eiffel Tower. In fact, one of our friends had his wallet picked within minutes of entering a hotel’s reception,” he said. As sirens blared on the streets of Paris and people queued up to donate blood at the Saint Louis Hospital, people shared the ‘Peace for Paris’ logo on social media, in an attempt to curb Islamophobia following the strikes.
Forty seven-year-old Shoba Shakti is a former LTTE child-soldier and now author, who is based in Paris. Speaking from Moscow where he was preparing for a flight back into Paris, he said, “France is more tolerant than most nations. Even after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we haven't seen a lot of hatred towards Muslims.
Unfortunately, there is an extremist right-wing that is against Muslims and Syrian refugees. It’s they who have been gradually spreading Islamophobia.” Shakti resides in the commune of Saint Dennis where Stade de France, the football stadium outside which three gunmen killed themselves in one of terror strikes, stands. “With border security tightened, I am a bit anxious about what when I land in Paris,”he continued.
When asked whether the coordinated terror strikes are likely to fuel suspicion and hatred towards the minorities in France, Hermet texted, “I don’t think so. Paris is the ‘world’, our people are smart. But, in the countryside, it could be different. My fear is that in the next election, people will vote for the right-wing, not just because of Islamophobia but out of fear.”
Francoise Steibel, a 52-year-old vintage connoisseur, said over the phone, “The attacks came as a shock. The terrorists wanted to attack pedestrian pleasures like music and cinema." Steibel moved to Lille, near the country's border with Belgium, from Paris 11 years ago, and heard of the attacks when friends began posting news on Facebook. “At first, I thought it was some mafia versus the mob, but later, the full picture emerged.” Steibel’s greatest concern is that “people will react in a Manichean way — looking at good and bad”.
She added, “I hope that they understand that terrorists are against everybody. The terrorists want to create a French religious civil war. We need to stay quiet, think but not react.”