A mild and cloudless Sunday afternoon, the last of the yellow plane-tree leaves stark against a clear blue sky, marked the first of three days of national mourning in Paris. Here in the 11th arrondissement, a mix of young families, bearded hipsters, and a rich palette of ethnic diversity form a Sunday promenade punctuated by makeshift memorials and hints of horror.
This district stood at the epicenter of appalling Islamist attacks Friday that killed 129 and injured 352. Outside the Bataclan, the faux-pagoda concert hall where 89 people died Friday night, hundreds of haggard-looking onlookers mill about in the soft November light. Families with young children, some in strollers, mix among them. One black-clad man in a top hat coaxes soap bubbles out of a bucket to float above the crowd. In the distance beyond security barriers, sheets are strung across the entrance as authorities continue their work inside. “Eagles of Death Metal,” the band onstage when the massacre began, still graces the venue’s marquee. The gathered crowd’s respectful silence is broken only by the hum of 20-odd satellite trucks, TV correspondents pattering through live reports in Spanish and English, and children unsure where to place a tealight candle among the many on the pavement. Messages left tucked into bouquets are devastating: “To you Caro, we will not forget you.” “Thoughts for Richard, who died saving his wife.”
A few blocks from the Bataclan, on the rue de la Fontaine-au-roi, five people were killed and eight critically injured. At the Casa Nostra pizzeria, behind red-and-white Police Nationale tape, pinkish sand laid to sop up blood is still scattered across the outdoor terrace. Here, too, the incongruous scent of tealights and votive candles is strong, the crowd silent. One woman charges a young boy with laying a bouquet next to the others. Across the street, at the Bonne Bière brasserie, forensic tape marks every bullet hole of the spray that pierced its windows. A shiny, crumpled emergency blanket and blood-stained debris lie inside. A half-full glass of flat beer still sits on a round café table.
Here, it isn’t quite time to think about what’s next for France. And yet, with the nation under a state of emergency, it is tough not to. Across town at the Elysée Palace, President François Hollande is spending his Sunday meeting with opposition leaders ahead of his appearance Monday before both houses of parliament, exceptionally united — a gesture meant to bring the country together.
Indeed, in January, when Islamist terrorists killed 17, including satirical cartoonists at magazine Charlie Hebdo just blocks from the Bataclan, three police officers, and four Jewish hostages at a Kosher grocery, the nation rallied together behind the now iconic slogan “Je suis Charlie.” Hollande’s weak approval ratings almost immediately doubled and record-breaking millions poured into the streets in solidarity.
Back then, the rare outlier, far-right spitfire Marine Le Pen, looked out of touch when she bowed out of the national-unity zeitgeist. She sat out the January 11 rally that drew 50 heads of state to Paris. But now, three weeks before tough nationwide regional elections, given a repeat attack exponentially larger in its scope and the sheer randomness of its targets, the sheen of national unity may run thinner. And Le Pen’s capacity to capitalize on the chaos may be all the greater for it.
All French political parties suspended their regional election campaigns as a mark of respect this weekend. Le Pen nevertheless seized the opportunity Saturday to call for France’s borders to be closed for good. “France and the French are no longer safe,” she proclaimed. “It is my duty to tell you that.” Polls have had her anti-European Union, anti-immigration party poised to make unprecedented gains next month. The party has a shot at winning up to three French regions, including one in northern France for Le Pen and another down south for her 25-year-old niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. A good showing would be another feather in Marine Le Pen’s cap ahead of 2017 presidential elections.
Already last week, before the attacks, Prime Minister Manuel Valls sounded the alarm. “The most important thing will be to keep the anti-Semitic and racist far-right from taking a region,” Valls told French television. He caused a commotion in his Socialist Party by suggesting its candidates join forces with former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing opposition, or even bow out in its favor, where necessary, in the December 13 runoff if it means keeping the National Front from power.
“These attacks serve as catalysts for [the National Front] because they confirm their theses for their electorate,” the IFOP pollster Jérôme Fourquet told the French financial daily Les Echos. “Marine Le Pen doesn’t have to do more because the events speak for her. They settle her credibility and legitimacy,”
So when one of the seven dead attackers in Friday’s massacres is rumored to have been a Syrian who migrated through Greece in October, it seems Jean-Marie Le Pen’s blonde scion may need to say very little to make political hay of the latest attack on the French capital. The “I told you so” is implicit. But Le Pen couldn’t help putting a fine point on it Sunday. “The dissemination of these migrants in the villages, in the cities in France can lead us to fear the existence of terrorists who would profit from these population movements to come strike us,” she told reporters outside the palace after meeting Hollande.
In Paris Sunday, near the Bataclan, crowds gathered on the Place de la République, where the monument at the heart of the square still bears graffiti for Charlie Hebdo. Here, the messages among the tealights and flowers are emotional and defiant. “Not Even Afraid,” reads one. “Be not afraid in the face of barbarity and obscurantism,” reads another. “I am depressed. Show me that life is beautiful,” proclaims a third. Some dab at tears in silence. One man holds his children’s scooters while they add white roses to the memorial. A woman holds up a sign offering “Free Hugs.”
Andrei Louis, 24, and Aurelien Drieu, 26, bearded young professionals just out of college, study the scene. They explain that friends of friends perished in the attacks and a loved one was rescued from the Bataclan by police. After the latest attacks, Louis argues, “Marine Le Pen, without having to do anything, I think she’ll collect new supporters.” But, he says, “I think that we mustn’t fall into that extreme. We have to keep cool heads. We have to tell ourselves that it’s just a handful of people. Obviously, after the sadness there will be anger. And I think a good chunk of people will sink into that sentiment, which is totally understandable.”
“It’s up to our generation to fight [the far-right] because it would be catastrophic if Marine Le Pen or the National Front got through [presidential elections],” says Drieu. “In any case, I don’t think they will. I think it’s a faux nightmare because we are too numerous in France to let that happen. But one has to be vigilant, that’s for sure.”
In this state of emergency, no one is anything but.