It was Salah Abdeslam, the only suspected surviving member of the Isis-backed extremists who struck targets in the French capital, killing 130 people. A confrontation loomed between the former president and the accused, who earlier in the trial justified the attacks as a moral response to the French airstrikes in Syria and blamed Hollande directly for them.
“Oh no, Mr. Abdeslam, if you have any questions you can go through your lawyers! Jean-Louis Périès, the president of the court, intervened to cut short the confrontation and end a marathon day of hearings.
Hollande’s presence and his clash with one of the alleged protagonists summed up how the criminal trial, now in its third month, acted as a cathartic moment for France. Not only does the country judge the individuals accused of the Bataclan, café terraces and Stade de France attacks, but it also publicly reports on the events and the damage they inflicted on French society.
A purpose-built courtroom in a heavily fortified courthouse in Paris became a stage for defendants, investigators, survivors, and politicians in power at the time to testify, and for experts in psychology and in sociology to explain the context.
The attacks were part of a traumatic time for France when Isis fighters returning from Syria and Iraq and French citizens who joined their cause committed a series of deadly acts. They included the murder of journalists from Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 and the rampage of trucks in Nice in July 2016.
Hollande appeared as a witness called by a group of victims as permitted in France on Wednesday, not by the prosecution or defense, and neither he nor the state is on trial. They wanted him to remember his experiences that night as he stood in the Stade de France crowd for a football match, his decision to order the assault to end the siege of the Bataclan and the government actions before and after.
Sharon Weill, a law professor specializing in terrorism trials at the American University of Paris, said the appearance of the former president was “a fascinating exercise” which showed how the trial is taking on a more important role in the world. beyond the simple judgment of the accused.
“It is not only a criminal procedure, it is also a truth commission where the victims can come and express themselves, and now the political context in which these attacks occurred is also being explored,” she said. . “Of course, the state is not on trial here, but the president had to answer questions. The courtroom has become a bit like a democratic forum.
French media often call the trial extraordinary, meaning abnormal or exceptional. The term reflects the scale and the drama of the proceedings which should take place until next May. France intends to prove that its judicial institutions are up to the challenge of trying the men accused of having carried out the deadliest peacetime attacks on its soil.
Most of the November 13 assailants died that night or soon after in police raids, with the exception of Abdeslam, who allegedly had an explosive vest that night that he never detonated. The other defendants are accused of having helped him escape to Brussels, of having provided logistical support such as false identity papers, or of being part of Isis cells preparing attacks in Europe.
The first month of testimony came from investigators into the attacks and the manhunt that followed; then five weeks of emotional testimonies from survivors and their families.
Last week, the defendants gave so-called personality testimony about their upbringing and character. Contrary to his earlier aggressive statements, Abdeslam was conciliatory in recounting a peaceful childhood in the Molenbeek district of Brussels and admitting a penchant for gambling and nightclubs. His mother and sister are also expected to testify. Evidence regarding religious views and the radicalization of the defendants will be heard at a later stage.
It was Mohamed Abrini, childhood friend and co-accused of Abdeslam, who delivered the most memorable line when he said: “We did not come out of our mothers’ wombs holding Kalashnikovs.
There was little levity on Wednesday when some defense lawyers sought to block Hollande’s appearance and that of sociologists specializing in Islamic extremism, arguing they had no evidential value. “Don’t let this trial be used as a political platform,” one pleaded. The judges canceled them.
Lawyers representing the victims have repeatedly asked Hollande if everything had been done to prevent the attacks. Some have suggested that intelligence services had failed to act on warnings in the summer of 2015 that attacks were planned on unspecified concert halls.
“We didn’t know where, when or how they would strike,” Hollande said, although he admitted that they knew Isis wanted to carry out attacks in Europe.
Defense lawyers demanded an explanation of how France legally justified airstrikes against Isis targets in 2014-15, while another questioned whether the “war on terror” waged by states The United and their allies since September 11, 2001 had only served to create more extremists.
“I see that defense lawyers are in international politics and not in criminal justice,” Hollande said with characteristic irony.
Xavier Nogueras, a seasoned defense lawyer in terrorism cases, asked the last question of the day: “If all that could have been done has been done, what do you think went wrong?” ? Is terrorism inevitable?
Hollande replied: “There will be other terrorist acts, and democracies must find answers, in law. “