The helicopters were shaking from evening to morning. That’s what I remember: the way the shutters were shaking, the sirens, the sobs across the courtyard of my building in the Latin Quarter in Paris. Six years after that night of Friday November 13, 2015, I remember my roommate ringing to say he heard gunshots, and a call from another friend, reassuring me that she was safe in the house of a stranger who, like many that night, had opened their doors to those seeking refuge. I remember the scrolling – a tragedy that played out in the tweets: confusion, attacks in a dozen places; a rising death toll.
Around midnight, then President François Hollande declared a state of emergency. Hours earlier he was watching France play a friendly soccer match with Germany at the Stade de France. At half-time, he was discreetly evacuated following an explosion outside the stadium. The match continued; France won 2-0 and the supporters sang “La Marseillaise”. Before full time, 39 people had been killed in bars and restaurants in the east of the city, and three gunmen stormed the Bataclan concert hall, killing 90 people and injuring several hundred more.
How we remember major events like these matters because they can shape a nation, its politics, and its psyche. This is what Denis Peschanski, principal researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, and co-head of the “November 13 Program” says. Over the course of ten years, from 2016 to 2026, through interviews with nearly 1,000 volunteers – including witnesses, survivors, family members, police, as well as hundreds not directly involved – the program will explore how are the memories of the attacks of November 13. shape and evolve. Six years later, we are in the middle of a new phase in this development: the terrorist trial in Paris. The procedure, according to Peschanski, marks a moment when personal testimony interacts and builds the shared narrative of the tragedy by France.
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 civilians, 330 lawyers, five judges and a file of over a million pages. Fourteen defendants are present in court; six, presumed dead, are tried in absentia. Only the main suspect, Salah Abdeslam, 32 – who fled after the attacks in Brussels, where he was captured four months later – is accused of murder. (The remaining defendants face a range of charges, including planning and assisting in attacks.) The object of the trial is not only to establish the innocence or guilt of the defendant, but also the origin and execution of the terrorist plot. The trial also gave a voice to the survivors and the families of the victims: throughout the month of October, more than 300 civil parties testified, their stories shaping the official record of events.
In the aftermath of September 11, French theorist Jacques Derrida described the New York attacks as part of the “archaic theater of violence aimed at striking the imagination” – a kind of spectacular horror. If the 2015 Paris attacks were part of this “theater of violence” – an assault not so much against the icons of capitalism as against the good life – then the trial takes place in the theater of peace. It is a counter-narrative, Peschanski told me, to the barbarity of the attacks. The courtroom itself, specially built for the trial within the Palais de Justice in Paris, featuring light wood benches, glass panels and warm white lights, creates an atmosphere of calm and neutrality.
In this silent arena, where much suffering has already been relived, some hope that there will also be an opportunity for relief. As Arthur Dénouveaux – a Bataclan survivor and president of survivor group Life for Paris – described it after testifying in court, the process created a kind of “pretty incredible serenity.” You find yourself in front of magistrates who listen to you and, strangely, you feel good there.
Other survivors pointed to the unifying potential of the storytelling. “Thanks to this trial,” said one of them, Pierre-Sylvain, “everything becomes a collective story… our common heritage. Another, David Fritz Goeppinger, who was taken hostage at the Bataclan, documents the ritual of attending the trial week after week in a series of online diaries – the way he links the victims, the way the courtroom The hearing has become “a vessel for memory holding the words of the victims.”
According to Peschanski, the trial also brings to the victims a coherence necessary for their collective memory. For the witnesses, a “broken story is potentially pathogenic”; it leaves room for doubt and confusion to fester. But the trial could build a more complete picture of events, acting as a corrective, almost, to what he called “the condensation of memory.” He described, for example, how even certain events became obscure. Asked during the first round of interviews in 2016 about their memories of November 13, many volunteers – about half of whom were not directly affected by the attacks, being observers outside Paris and beyond – did reference to the Bataclan (70%), while 40 to 45% cite the attacks at the Stade de France and on the terraces. But in the second round two years later, only 17-19% mentioned the Stade de France and the terraces. Instead, respondents tended to summarize events with a single reference to “Bataclan”, or loosely to “Paris”. “It’s a classic phenomenon of collective and individual memory,” Peschanski told me. “We remember just enough to explain it all. “
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The lawsuit will help bring events and moments back to a story that, six years later, is still being written. The process is expected to continue beyond the April presidential election and, with key Muslim immigration and security concerns for voters, the trial could fuel political campaigns. Yet the way he shapes national history is also much broader than politics. While the collective memory of Friday, November 13 has so far been structured around the figure of the victim, Peschanski suggests that the trial also brings the hero to the fore – the police, first responders, neighbors opening their doors and helping the injured. Will it then become a story of national strength and resilience?
Maybe he always has been. The helicopters only roared for a very long time: On Saturday, dog walkers had returned to parks, shoppers to the streets, and hundreds of people lined up outside local hospitals to donate blood to the injured. On Sunday, Paris sat on the leaf-lined terraces, bars and brasseries, busy. I took this then to be a force of habit; I remember it now as an act of defiance.