The Paris attacks happened on a Friday night. In the days after, Parisians struggled with the mere idea that, for the first time in the history of the country, suicide bombers had blown themselves up in their own familiar landmarks. During the weekend, people felt the urge to visit the different places that had been attacked not only to pay their respect to the dead but also simply to understand what had just happened in their city. They also felt they wanted to sit at cafés and resume their lives. Sitting at a terrasse last weekend in Paris was an act of defiance. A strange mix of grief, solemnity and joy, the simple joy of being alive in one of the most free and most beautiful city in the world, was perceptible on the streets.
Like so many other Parisians, I decided to go for a quick cup of coffee in my neighbourhood. It so happens that I live within walking distance of the rue de Charonne, where youngsters having a drink or dinner at the “terrasses” were killed. The cafés were full. At 2 in the afternoon, friends had gathered for a drink or a late lunch. The tables around me were full. The waiter, a tall and muscular bearded hipster, was busy taking orders. Everything was normal until I went to the counter to pay and routinely asked him how he was. With tears in his eyes, he told me all his colleagues from the neighbourhing bistrot had been killed. The name of this bistrot is “La belle équipe”, the Fine team. I offered him my sympathy, he smiled and left to attend to another client.
In front of “La belle équipe”, candles, flowers and messages of support were spread out on the pavement. The crowd was gathering, hugging, bodies against bodies. People of all ages and ethnicities, some in tears. Heavily armed policemen were visible, closely scrutinising the area. The state of emergency declared by President François Hollande means that any gathering or demonstration is forbidden. But the French are not an obedient lot and the need to be together trumped the official recommendation to stay home or even the fear of other attacks.
The crowd was silent on rue de Charonne, and silent near the Bataclan concert hall, where many national and foreign television crews had set up their gear in order to do breaking stories. Many Parisians were carrying bouquets of white roses that they were going to leave either at the attacks sites or at the place de la République.
Everybody seemed to be converging at République, a very large and symbolic square were demonstrations are generally held. This is also were the crowd gathered to express grief and support for the French values of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January. Several men and women were distributing free hugs. A group of youngsters was playing the guitar. Another was playing an accordian. Soon, a large group started singing old French songs. There were messages of support near the flowers, written in French, German, Spanish, English and Arabic. A large sign said “We are not afraid”.
And, at one extremity of the square, street artists had worked overnight. One of them had written “fluctuat nec mergitur”, (tossed but not sunk), which is the official motto of the city of Paris, written below a boat on its coat of arms. Below, more candles and paper boats. On the other side of the wall, another painting showed a French kid with the flag and the motto again. There was a spirit of resilience, of a refusal to be sunk by this terrible tragedy.
On my way back, as the night was falling, my eyes stumbled across the latest edition of “Le Parisien”, the most widely circulated local daily, inside a bakery. The title on the frontpage was an apt description of the prevailing mood: “Let’s resist”. One way Parisians will do this is to go on enjoying life. As the song goes “Paris sera toujours Paris”: Paris will always be Paris.
Photos and text by Ingrid Therwath, a journalist based in Paris