November 2015 attacks: Parisians remember a night of terror as criminal trial opens (Part 2 of 2)
Bart is the director of La Belle Équipe, one of the restaurants targeted by Islamist terrorists on November 13, 2015. Jean-Baptiste is a history teacher in Paris. Nicolas is a real estate agent who lived near the Bataclan concert hall. They spoke to FRANCE 24 about how that horrific evening changed their lives – and how they managed to move forward.
France suffered its deadliest-ever terror attack in November 2015 when three teams of jihadists launched nearly simultaneous attacks on the Stade de France national stadium and the Bataclan music hall, as well as restaurants and bars (Le Carillon, La Belle Équipe, La Bonne Bière, Le Petit Cambodge, Le Comptoir Voltaire) across central Paris, killing 130 people and leaving 350 wounded. France's largest-ever criminal trial opens Wednesday in Paris, with 20 people facing justice for suspected involvement in the attacks, the deadliest on French soil since World War II. The trial is expected to last for nine months.
FRANCE 24 spoke to several Parisians whose lives were upended by the attacks.
• Bart, the manager of La Belle Équipe: ‘It is not a tomb ... It's a café, a place where people come to have fun’
Bart was on duty the evening of November 13, 2015, when Islamist terrorists went on a shooting spree on the terrace of La Belle Équipe restaurant. Twenty people were killed in a matter of seconds, including several of Bart's colleagues and friends. The 32-year-old, who is now manager of the restaurant, said people are often unaware that La Belle Équipe suffered the second-highest death toll of that evening, after the Bataclan concert hall. But Bart doesn't want to talk about what happened anymore.
La Belle Équipe's owner, Grégory Reibenberg, lost his wife Djamila that night. When the historic trial opens on September 8, Bart will join the proceedings as a civil party to the case. "I will be there, I'll do it for them, for Grégory and for La Belle Équipe ... But after the trial, that will be it. I'm going to have to live with that for the rest of my life, but from a public standpoint I won't be giving interviews anymore," Bart told FRANCE 24. He doesn't expect much from the trial. One of the accused perpetrators, Salah Abdeslam, “is not a talker”, Bart said. “He hasn't said anything all along and I doubt he's going to say anything during the trial."
It was hard for Bart to return to La Belle Équipe after the attack – until the restaurant got a makeover. In 2016, Reibenberg revamped the place. The bar counter was moved to another spot, the bistro got some new colour and the points of reference weren't the same. "La Belle Équipe was reborn from its ashes," Bart said. As the only member of the old team still at the restaurant, "People are often surprised that I'm still working here after all that I've been through. But this restaurant is still a place of life," he said. Years later, he feels "very attached" to La Belle Équipe.
On the wall, a fresco of poppies discreetly bears the first names of all those killed there in the attack, Bart pointed out. But the manager tries to avoid thinking of the attack during his day-to-day work. "I created a barrier for myself."
Indeed, he gets annoyed when visitors come to lay flowers. "I understand that it's a way for them to show us their love. But here, we are not in a cemetery, it is not a tomb. It's a café – a place where people come to have fun. And that's actually why we were attacked. So if this becomes a place where people come to pay their respects, the people who did this will have won," he said.
"Life goes on. We had even more people coming here after the attacks," Bart said.
Six years on, the manager is now training a new generation of waiters. "They're young. I'm also looking to protect them. I don't want them to be reminded again and again that an attack took place here."
• Jean-Baptiste, a history teacher in Paris: ‘The trial is going to contribute to the work of historians’
A football fanatic, Jean-Baptiste wasn't likely to miss the France-Germany match on November 13, 2015. The history teacher, who teaches at a private high school and at the university level, was home in Paris's 17th arrondissement (district) watching the game on television that Friday evening with his brother-in-law. Six years after that nightmare evening, Jean-Baptiste still remembers the events as they happened, minute by tragic minute. "When I saw that the situation was spinning out of control on Twitter, I immediately thought of some of my students who were on the forecourt of the Stade de France," the football venue in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where suicide bombers detonated their charges that night, killing one man and seriously injuring others. And then he discovered, astounded like everyone else, the tragedy unfolding at the Bataclan concert hall. He got to sleep that night at 3am.
The weekend went by and then came Monday, when Jean-Baptiste would have to try to explain the unfathomable to his high school students. "As a teacher, you find yourself in a schizophrenic situation where you have to confront your own emotions even as you're going over the event in the most objective manner possible, contextualising it." The task was complex. "The education ministry left us to fend for ourselves. The other teachers, many of whom were stunned, also relied a lot on the history teachers to explain the events. Terrorism is a part of the things that we teach. We did the work and put the events into perspective." But the exercise was gruelling. Jean-Baptiste was also receiving a lot of messages from former students who also wanted to make sense of what had happened. People were bewildered.
During that entire period, "we responded to a social need. Perhaps too much so," he said. As time went by, the subject filled Jean-Baptiste's every thought. It became obsessive, oppressive. "I thought about it all the time." The tragedy also struck close to home: One of his friends, who attended the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan that night, was a survivor of the attack. Along with a historian colleague, he decided to tell his friend's story in a book. "The commemoration on the first anniversary and the book release did me a lot of good. They allowed me to digest the information and to move on."
But on October 16, 2020, another tragedy struck. A teacher in suburban Paris was beheaded over a lesson he had given on freedom of expression, during which he had shown his middle-school students caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. "The murder of Samuel Paty brutally brought back the memories of the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 massacres. That new incident hit me hard. As a history teacher, you tell yourself that it could have been you." Was he afraid? "No, but we know that we have to be extremely vigilant in the answers we provide to high school students about secularism." Today, the 42-year-old is still pursuing his mission as a teacher. More and more, he is also pondering questions about the future of the world, particularly since he became a father in 2018 to a little girl.
Jean-Baptiste is now focussing his expectations on the trial that opens Wednesday in Paris. "Justice must be seen through to the end, no matter how long it takes, so that the victims and their loved ones may be heard and ... may move on. What will come out of this historic trial is also very important because it will contribute to the work of historians and researchers in the years to come and will inform the history books."
• Nicolas, a real estate agent in Paris’s 11th arrondissement (district): ‘The culprits will never be able to give back all the lives they took’
He had just celebrated his 33rd birthday in style with his mates the night before. So on November 13, Nicolas opted to take it easy at home and watch the France-Germany game with his wife, their infant baby and a few friends. The real estate agent had opened several agencies, including one next door to the Bataclan, and lived two streets from the concert hall. "During the match, I heard an explosion. I remember Evra lifting his head at the Stade de France. I know stadiums, having spent a lot of time hanging around them. I thought to myself that that noise wasn't normal." Very soon after, the phone rang. Friends were worried because they knew Nicolas' apartment was only 200 metres from the Bataclan, where hundreds of concertgoers were being held hostage. "We changed the channel and stayed glued to the television for hours. Outside, through the window, we heard gunfire and grenades when law enforcement entered the Bataclan. Our friends slept over at our place."
"We didn't leave home for three days, or hardly, just the strict minimum and we were careful," Nicolas recalled. At work, for two weeks, things were completely calm. "People in the neighbourhood were in shock. The 11th arrondissement had been targeted twice in less than a year. There had been the Charlie Hebdo attack 300 metres from there a few months before," on January 7, 2015.
Nicolas had expected the real estate market to take a hit, but only one sale was cancelled in the end. "The buyers, an English couple, were supposed to sign a promise to purchase an apartment for their daughter and they were frightened." But for the most part, he observed, "people didn't want to stop living". "I don't think I'd ever seen the café terraces as full as they were after the attacks, even though it was not advised. The 11th is known as a neighbourhood of partiers and bons vivants, and the attacks here had targeted music, parties, artists ... It's as if people here wanted to show that they weren't up for being intimidated," he recalled.
Nicolas ended up moving away from the neighbourhood a year ago, but he still works nearby and very often walks by the Bataclan. "There is a monument and flowers. I always spare a thought for the people who died and those who were wounded. But I expect nothing from the trial," he said. "Unfortunately, the harm is done. The culprits won't ever be able to give back the lives they took. For me, it's not enough. But there's nothing else we can do."
This article has been translated from the original in French. To read Part 1, click here.
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