The Saturday morning grocery market in Avignon is usually bustling, with traders shouting, chanting, trying to beat each other on the price of tomatoes, eggs, loaves of bread. But on the morning of Saturday the 14th of November, all was still. No-one was trying to sell me tomatoes. That was when I realised that the catastrophic events of the evening before had stricken France deep in her heart. Cashiers gave blessings instead of the usual “Merci, au revoir”; old women filled their baskets with aubergines without a glance at the prices; the swathes of busy shoppers were replaced with small trickles of people quietly wandering from stall to stall. Something was in the air, and it has remained this way since. France has been moved to its very core.
On Monday morning, a teacher broke down in tears in front of my class: “Je suis parisienne.” On Tuesday, I was asked to open my bag to security and policemen at the gates of my university. By Wednesday, there was only one gate to the campus open, so that security could keep a close eye on everyone, and everything, entering and leaving. Facebook has been full of events happening in the local area to commemorate, celebrate, mourn, and show solidarity. It’s worth noting that in Avignon, I’m roughly the same distance away from Paris that I would be in Manchester. But distance means nothing—a friend on her year abroad in Martinique has observed minute’s silences and memorial services: The French truly are one nation, united in grief.
As an Erasmus student, I struggled with how to feel about the tragedy whilst living within France’s borders; it wasn’t my people being attacked, but it was my safety being threatened, and my liberty being taken away. At a minute’s silence on Monday, hundreds, maybe thousands, of students gathered in front of the University of Avignon to join in silence and mourning. The crowd then broke out into La Marseillaise, and I felt completely at one with everyone there, despite not knowing the words. The round of applause that followed lifted every heavy heart with the one thing the French will never let go of: Solidarity.
Since the weekend, there have been a number of scares here in Avignon—from explosives reported in a supermarket, to threats to a crowd gathering in front of the famous Palais de Papes—but the reality is we are far from the centre of this tragedy. For students on their years abroad in Paris, however, their life in the capital has changed irrevocably. Some were caught up in the deadly attacks on Friday the 13th of November, and the events that followed; some were too close for comfort; and some have returned from weekends away to a city whose spirit has been broken. Thankfully, all University of Manchester students are safe, and indeed all students from all British universities. One Briton died in the massacre at the Bataclan concert hall, 36-year-old Nick Alexander from Colchester, along with over 20 foreign victims, and more than 100 French men and women. This was the greatest loss of life that Europe has seen in over a decade, and it has shaken the population of Paris and of France beyond belief.
Since Friday, I have spoken to three University of Manchester students who are studying and working in Paris for their years abroad, and they have shared their stories and experiences of the weekend and the aftermath of the attacks with The Mancunion.
One French student, called L for the purposes of this article, is working in a bakery for her first semester in Paris, and she found herself incredibly close to where the major attacks took place: “On the night of the attacks, I had met a friend at Place de la République at around 7pm, and we decided to walk towards Canal Saint Martin, well known for being a trendy hang-out area for young Parisians. We walked along the canal and finally chose a bar.” When they left, “we found our way was blocked by a big crowd and a fair amount of pompier vans [fire engines], police cars, and police tape cordoning off the area. I presumed it was a car crash and continued.
“We walked back towards Place de la République where we came across another crowd of people, pompiers, and police cars but in a different place. This time I actually went to get a closer look, confused at the idea of two incidents happening within 500 metres of each other, and wondered if the two were connected. At this point, I received a text from a friend saying that there had been shootings and bombings in Paris in the 10th and 11th arrondissements—exactly where we were.
“I can’t really remember how I felt at that exact moment… we knew no details but just that it would be better to get away from where we were. The atmosphere was weird and on edge, no-one was running, but no one was standing still.” They decided to take shelter in a friend’s apartment in the south of the city, far from where the attacks had taken place. “The sounds of sirens literally did not stop until we had crossed south of the river; it was a strange, unnerving silence which only felt more unnerving when we passed restaurants and bars with people still inside enjoying their meals and drinks. It was such a weird contrast going from the only audible noise being constant sirens, to silence apart from voices laughing and chatting.
“We all felt sick and didn’t really know what to say to each other. We talked about how close each of us had been and how it easily could have been one of us—something which I feel a bit guilty about now. At one point, we refreshed the news and the headline had changed from ‘100 taken hostage in the Bataclan’ to ‘100 hostages dead in the Bataclan’. We didn’t believe it. When we found out it was true, it was a really horrible feeling.
“The next day, we woke up feeling as sick as the night before. There was a sense of trying to continue with life, but which was overwhelmed with grief and mourning and almost guilt. When I finally decided to go home at around 8pm to my house in the 11th, I was really scared. I saw a police van and flashing lights near the metro station I was getting on at, and was convinced that something else had happened. I rushed home as fast as I could, spoke to no one, and went to my room.”
Alex, a French student at Manchester who works in a Parisian university on her year abroad, was in Lille on the night of Friday the 13th of November. On the Sunday, however, she got caught up in the huge scare that took place in and around Place de la République: “We decided before going to dinner that we’d light a candle at Place de la République. We were just chatting about the events of the weekend when out of nowhere we just saw hundreds of people running towards us and screaming. My friend grabbed my arm and told me to run, so we turned away and started running. Every time I heard something drop I thought it was a gunshot. The police were shouting “Bougez, Bougez! [Move, Move!]”—we ran past some press and saw the camera man drop to the floor, a lot of people started dropping to the floor, or running into restaurants and hiding under tables. Nobody really knew what was going on but the police had their guns at the ready and people were saying there was a gunman in the Marais.
“Although it was a false alarm, the panic was so genuine, I’ve never seen so many people running in my life. It was probably the most terrifying moment of my life. Now, every time I hear a siren, I wonder, what’s happened? Speaking to a lot of French friends, they think this is only the beginning; whether this is the reality or just the media warping things I’m not sure, but either way, I don’t really feel comfortable here at the minute.”
Despite this, Alex adds: “This week, there has been a movement called #Tousaubistrot [Everyone to the bistros], which was a way of showing we weren’t scared by going out for dinner in Paris, and also to mark respect for those restaurants and bars that were involved in the attack. There was a minute’s silence at 9pm… not only was this showing solidarity in the sense of ‘même pas peur’ [Be not afraid], but it was also a nice way to get people to continue their lives as normal.”
Emma is a Manchester student studying at the Sorbonne University in Paris. “There’s a real sense of panic and fear still in the air: People jumping at every little thing, like the lights in our lecture going off. Lots of international students have been asked to go home by their universities. It was very difficult going into the Sorbonne on Monday, with three students here being victims of the shootings. Students in my classes knew those who died on such a personal level; one girl was on my course. One teacher invited, instead of a lesson, an open discussion about the events and what was to come. I was surprised, it caused more anger than solidarity amongst students: Anger towards Hollande for the reaction against Syria, anger in turn from those who believed the military action to be necessary, and so on. Pupils had to leave the class because they were so distressed. I’ve never been so frustrated at wanting to get involved but also feeling so voiceless, as a year abroad student here.”
She stresses the importance of the attitude of solidarity of Parisians: “We went to Place de la République, the Bataclan, and La Belle Equipe on Sunday to lay candles and pay our respects, and were minutes away when the second scare happened. But there was a real sense of solidarity; the sun was rising as we walked towards Place de la République, and people were singing La Marseillaise in unison. It was very moving. There’s also lots of street art to project people’s mourning but also resilience.”
L reiterates these experiences on the Sunday: “I walked along past the Bataclan towards the road where I live, where another shooting had happened. It was the first time that I’d been past the café since it all happened, and I’ve never seen so many candles and flowers. Part of me felt happy to have paid my respects and participate in Parisian solidarity against terror, but another part of me felt a little guilty and strange to have looked at the sights of the attacks as if it was some sort of tourist attraction.” She adds to me later in the week that, “even today, every time I pass the café on my road there is always a crowd, morning, noon, and night, showing their respects and mourning, moving on but not forgetting.”
This sense of solidarity, and the belief that French people can come together in sorrow and hope, stretches far beyond the walls of the capital. In Avignon, and all around the country, French citizens are united in hope, not fear. At Wembley, an entire stadium of English and French people came together to sing La Marseillaise. In Manchester, a Gathering for Solidarity took place at Piccadilly Gardens to commemorate the lives lost many miles away; Manchester French student, and director of Fuse TV’s documentary of the vigil, Maximilian Steyger, said: “Candles were lit in the centre of the congregation of people. Everyone was silently paying their tributes. Some were made by speakers, notably from the Muslim community of Manchester, who condemned these awful attacks. It was a very emotional and sombre occasion, but it was very moving to see people from all religious backgrounds and all ethnicities of Manchester come together to show solidarity with the victims and with France.”
Hearing the stories of the Manchester students living in a Paris that has been changed forever recalls the words of Francois Hollande shortly after the events took place: “That’s what was attacked on the 13th of November. These barbarians targeted France in its diversity. It is the youth of France that was targeted, because quite simply it represents life.” But if the youth, along with the rest of Paris—and indeed of France and the world—can come together and be strong, then life is what will keep on being represented, cherished, nourished, and loved.
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