Scottish Daily Mail
Night they came in hope and defiance for their City of Light
Night falls on a stricken city. thousands gather outside Notre Dame cathedral. it is a sombre act of defiance, solidarity and hope by Parisians against a murderous intolerance that stalks their streets once again.
these are strange times in the City of Light.
Yesterday, Paris was closed: tout est fermé. On an exquisite autumn day which, in other circumstances, would have been a celebration of life and love, the world’s favourite romantic destination had shut its doors and gone into mourning.
No one was allowed to climb the Eiffel tower, now patrolled by soldiers in camouflage and carrying assault rifles.
At the Esplanade du Louvre, the only people who got near to the famous museum were armed police. the Chinese and Japanese tourists had to be satisfied with distant selfies of the glass pyramid, rather than a close-up with the Mona Lisa.
And yet there was still one public building that remained open. in fact, it was busier than ever before.
the institut Medico Legal is the city’s morgue. it stands on the Pont d’Austerlitz, above the sparkling Seine and within sight of the dome of Notre Dame de Paris.
Eight stone steps lead up to its front door beneath a classical portico. how hard those steps must have been to climb yesterday for the families of the dead.
this was where the bodies of the so far 129 victims of Friday’s massacre were being held. they could be released for burial only following a formal identification.
And so, by staggered appointment to avoid an even more distressing queue, the bereaved stepped out into the sunshine to confirm the irreparable fracturing of their families.
Few wanted to talk. One elderly man stopped to explain: ‘it is my daughter’s husband’s body we have come to see. he was in the Bataclan [the concert hall where 89 died].’
Later, three tall, young, black men entered the smart two-storey building. they left faces taut, chests pushed out, trying to be strong. the killers did not discriminate on the grounds of colour. they killed everyone they could.
in the history of every great city there is usually a moment that causes the relentless noise and bustle to cease temporarily. that happened in Paris on June 14, 1940, as the populace awaited the arrival of the victorious german army.
Something similar occurred again yesterday as the French capital — styled by islamic State as ‘the capital of abomination and perversion’ — became the focus of national mourning and national emergency.
it was no exaggeration to say that a hush fell upon this metropolis. Soul-searching — that gallic national pastime — has become obsessive. Most preferred to do it in the comfort and safety of home; no one knew who was still at large.
Disneyland, cinemas, shops, theatres, museums and the Christmas market, which opened on the Champs Elysees only last Wednesday, stayed closed. the usually hellish traffic in the historic centre was quiet; European tourists, who might have come for a weekend break, were similarly scarce.
Locals said that they had never
‘This is our 9/11, our Pearl Harbour’
seen it like this before, save in that time of mid-August when most of the capital heads for the beach or the countryside.
in the area around the Rue Voltaire, where most of the attacks took place, a number of streets were still sealed off.
On the Rue Richard Lenoir, barriers had been erected by
security forces on either side of the Bataclan cafe and concert hall.
Hundreds of candles had been placed against it, along with cards, flowers and photographs, some apparently of victims.
One was dedicated to Guillaume who ‘a perdu la vie’ — lost his life — during the attack on the Bataclan.
There was the child’s drawing of a rainbow. A placard read ‘Vive le monde libre. Vive la France’ (Long live the free world. Long live France).
Everywhere, you saw the slogan ‘Meme pas peur’ (Not afraid). It seems to have the same defiant resonance for those affected by Friday’s attacks as ‘Je suis Charlie’ achieved in the aftermath of January’s Islamist outrage in Paris.
Not all victims of the attacks were injured. I met Florence Bataille, a psychologist, who was waiting outside one of the main Parisian hospitals. She had volunteered to help survivors, and since Friday has counselled a number of them.
‘I have met a number who escaped from the Bataclan,’ she said. ‘They were not wounded, but they are also victims.
‘Most are very shocked. They fear to be in the street, they cannot sleep and have nightmares. The problem is many of them do not consider themselves victims and suffer alone. They feel lost.’
At the Ecole Militaire — being used as the HQ of the army’s highprofile intervention on the streets — open-backed lorries, from which squads of troops cradling assault rifles scanned the pavements, set off into Paris. It is something I have seen in Kabul or Baghdad, never in the centre of a west European city.
Some Parisians called for just such an aggressive response.
A few hundred yards from the Bataclan cordon, in Rue Nicolas Appert, stands the former offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
It was here, in January, that jihadists — brothers in carnage to Friday’s assassins — began a bloody rampage that killed 17 journalists, police officers and customers of a Jewish supermarket.
In the street, I met a local resident, coach driver Jean Chardcot, 55. He offered the most hawkish assessment of what had happened and why. His background, as an Israeliborn Jew who had married a Frenchwoman after serving as a combat soldier in Lebanon, Gaza and the Golan Heights, had undoubtedly shaped this outlook.
‘The French are too nice and are very, very naive,’ he said. ‘They think they drop a few bombs and the problem will go away.
‘But these fanatics think that if they die they will go to Paradise. They positively like it! The French attitude goes back to the Revolution and the idea of liberté, egalité and fraternité. Radical Islam cares nothing for that.’
Saturday night had been eerily quiet in the centre of the city, with police Tannoys warning crowds to disperse from the Place de la Republique ‘for your own safety’ in case they attracted fresh attack.
I went for dinner in a bistro in the 7th district with my Parisian friend, Marco.
‘It feels like a declaration of war on France as a whole,’ he told me. ‘This is our 9/11, our Pearl Harbour.
‘They targeted young Parisians out having fun. They weren’t tourist hang-outs — they were where we go.’ Society was split, he said. ‘It is no longer the (Great War battle of) Verdun, lines against lines. This is a war on our streets. The worst is yet to come and the worst could happen anywhere.’
His words stay with me. As yesterday’s glorious, awful afternoon wore on towards a roseate sunset, the crowds gathered at Notre Dame for a service of remembrance. The floral tributes along the barriers on the Rue Richard Lenoir grew.
Speeches were being made to a much larger gathering in the Place de la Republique. Strangers were hugged and Beatles’ songs sung.
The mood was intense and defiant. Paris and France itself would not be defeated. ‘Meme pas peur!’ said the banners. But they were afraid. Just before 6pm, loud noises from one side of the square caused the panicked, screaming flight of thousands. They thought it was gunfire, but it turned out to be merely another false alarm.
Meanwhile, the dreadful procession at the Pont d’Austerlitz morgue continues.
Given the numbers of the dead, it will do so for several days to come.