Foreign victims of Bataclan attack seek solace in testifying at Paris trial
On that grim Friday night six years ago, Islamic State group terrorists killed 130 people in coordinated mass shootings and suicide bombings at the Bataclan music hall, on Paris restaurant terraces and outside the Stade de France football venue just north of the city. Nearly a quarter of those slain were foreign nationals. Many had gone to watch California rockers Eagles of Death Metal on stage at the Bataclan, where the attack claimed 90 lives.
Years in the making, a trial unprecedented in scale and befitting a 1-million-page investigation file began on September 8. Over the course of nine months, 20 stand accused in a special €8 million made-to-measure courtroom inside the historic Palais de Justice courthouse complex, a stone's throw from Notre-Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris. The verdict is expected next May.
As of Monday the court had registered 2,375 plaintiffs to the proceedings, including 215 foreign nationals and three French dual nationals of 36 different countries, from Mexico to Cameroon, Egypt to Japan. British plaintiffs make up the largest contingent with 27, followed by Serbs, Americans, Moroccans, Spaniards, Austrians and Italians. Hundreds of attack survivors and family members of the deceased are testifying before the court throughout October, most of them in French, with testimony in other languages aided by interpreters provided by the court.
'A very long shadow'
As bewildering as the attacks were for the Parisian survivors caught up in the fray – a carefree night out for drinks turned into a life-altering nightmare in a spray of Kalashnikov fire – the experience for foreigners was disorienting in additional ways, with some far from home and lacking in French. Some travelled home in a haze days, or even hours, after the attacks.
That palliative distance would become its own character in their recovery story: "A double-edged sword," as one English victim called it recently; "A blessing and a curse," said another. The long road after, beset with obstacles including pandemic-restricted travel, has proven dizzying, too. For many, simply attending the lengthy trial in Paris is a challenge, more so testifying in a foreign court. But the solace of perhaps finding the answers they need may well make up for it.
Michael O'Connor was 30 and working as a chef in Lyon when he and his girlfriend decided to have “a nice romantic weekend in Paris", he told FRANCE 24 from Newcastle. The Bataclan show was O'Connor's first night ever in the French capital. He spent much of it playing dead on a concert hall floor, shielding a loved one from lethal harm amid sheer carnage. Lying still with only his hearing as a guide, he struggled to grasp the French-language commands of the terrorists raining gunfire and the police who came to the rescue. In the aftermath, O'Connor suffered "terrible, terrible sleep and flashbacks"; his need to find a way to recover hastened his return to England and his post-traumatic stress disorder made work in professional kitchens unviable. On Friday, the Englishman will stand up before the court in Paris and tell the story of those two hours that have cast "a very long shadow over the rest of your life".
As fortunate as survivors like O'Connor were to walk away "with just bumps and bruises, no gunshot wounds", less visible injuries pose their own recovery challenges. "It's kind of so outlandish and so horrific that you can sometimes question, you know, 'Was it real? Did that really happen?'" he said. Much of what O'Connor is seeking from the trial, and what he hopes to contribute to it with his own testimony, is the comfort of clarity on the events of that night.
"I don't want to get up and tell the same story that's been told 100 times by other people. But talking to other survivors I've realised that even just one tiny little snippet of information can be incredibly important for somebody else," O'Connor explained in a soft northern English drawl. "So when I've heard other people's testimonies, it can be just the smallest detail – maybe something that they'd seen in the corridor, or a certain smell, a sound, even what time the lights went up, things like that. That's had a massive effect on me because I've been able to place it in my timeline and it's helped me with that."
"Over the course of six years, your mind can do quite strange things with those sounds, smells and sights, and it's good to get clarity on that," he added.
O'Connor is planning at least three trips to Paris for the trial: one to testify on October 15, another during the anniversary events in November and again in January. "Thankfully, I work for the NHS (Britain’s national health service) and they've been very understanding. They've allowed me time off, which is really good, but I imagine it being quite difficult for people who work in other professions" to get away, he said.
Since the trial began on September 8, O'Connor, whose "French isn't perfect", has followed along however he can from a distance. The French law firm he shares with other English-speaking plaintiffs e-mails regular reports on the trial in their language, with the victims' aid association Life For Paris and the press (via Google Translate) filling in the rest. O'Connor and other plaintiffs based abroad were disappointed to suddenly learn as the trial began that the secure "web radio" audio link the court had promised for listening in remotely would be unavailable outside continental France for cybersecurity reasons. The French justice ministry says it is working on a solution, but so far no dice. "That was a little bit of a blow, because I would have liked to have followed along a bit more closely," O'Connor said.
He paid a visit to some of the tight-knit community of British survivors in person around the start of the trial. But to prepare his testimony to the court – with his Paris-based lawyers kept away for long stretches by Covid-19 travel restrictions – O'Connor has been "persevering with Zoom" from England.
Lawyer Thomas Ricard's family firm represents O'Connor as well as 20 other British and Irish plaintiffs, all victims of the Bataclan attack based abroad. "We're quite attached to the UK because my grandfather (who founded the firm) did D-Day with the British and I worked in London for about seven years," Ricard told FRANCE 24.
Ricard sees a big part of counsel’s role as helping clients through their grieving process – from shepherding them through France's victim compensation system (a process made more arduous for foreign victims by Covid-19 disruptions), through the investigation and now during the trial.
The way a French investigation and trial works differs significantly from what his clients might be familiar with in Britain. ("I guess I was expecting kind of stuffy wigs and witness stands and all that kind of thing," O'Connor quipped.) In France, plaintiffs are encouraged to be pro-active during the investigation, to pass along the questions they want answered. It is only after that investigation has ended that the trial begins, with a panel of professional judges deciding the verdict in French terror cases, not a popular jury.
So getting clients' questions answered, in sometimes grisly detail, is a critical part of the job. Some survivors recalled that one Bataclan terrorist had his weapon trained on a man before detonating his suicide bomb. "The question that some of our clients had was: The blood that I received on my face, is it only the terrorist's or is it also the guy he was about to kill?" Ricard explained. "It turns out the guy in question is still alive and gave testimony to one of the (investigating) judges." Knowing that, after it had played on survivors' minds for years, was a comfort.
Ricard said many also needed to know how long the ordeal had lasted – half an hour? Four hours? (More like two.) Were there three attackers or four? (Three, according to DNA evidence from their vehicle.) Were the bouncers complicit in the attacks? (Assuredly no.) Every mystery laid to rest is a step in a survivor's recovery.
Eight of Ricard's clients are travelling to Paris this month to address the court, with seven speaking this Friday alone. "Some were surprised that so many of our clients were coming to testify,” Ricard said. But he thinks so many chose to speak because it might help victims from abroad in particular to come to terms with the events of that night. “It's important to come back to where it happened and probably get a sense of closure by doing this," he said.
Incentives to attend
It's tough to leave a job or children behind to travel during a pandemic and take part in a long gruelling trial. To help plaintiffs cope, the Paris Court of Appeal provides a long slate of allowances to defray the cost of attending. Compensation is provided for days attending court as well as some allowances for lost wages, meals, accommodation, travel, transit and parking. Given a few days' notice, the court also swears in interpreters for foreign plaintiffs attending the proceedings in person. Overflow rooms provide for up to 2,000 people to come to the trial on any given day.
Olivier Laplaud, a Bataclan survivor and vice president of the Life for Paris survivors’ support group, thinks it makes sense that foreigners – as well as French survivors far from Paris – would seek to partake as fully as they can.
"For Parisians, we surely feel closer to the action. Group members get together regularly, victims go have a drink together at a bar or we see concerts," Laplaud told FRANCE 24. "For people who live far from Paris, you might feel a bit alone in the face of all this. We see it on Life for Paris's private Facebook chats. We see that foreigners have a real need to come to Paris to be part of the trial and be stakeholders in it," he continued.
"Participating in the trial, even if only for a few days, will help them not feel excluded in the end. That will surely help in their recovery," Laplaud said. "I hope they find some answers and can close a chapter after this."
Set up by French survivors two months after the Paris attacks, Life for Paris made a mission from the start of helping foreign and local victims alike find those answers. The founders chose an English name specifically to let foreigners know they were welcome – a semantic choice that still rankles some on social media. ("French chauvinism still exists a bit," quipped Laplaud, who is French and German.) Today, the group has "several dozen" foreign members, he said, rattling off nationalities: Italian, Spanish, British, German, Dutch, Belgian, Algerian, Turkish and others. The group prides itself on being "a big family" and helping victims in any language it can muster, drawing up instruction leaflets on themes like how a French terror trial works, why one might choose to testify, what benefits victims have a right to request and where they can seek help, within France and even abroad.
Individual members, too, are quick to help one another. "That's really the beauty of this association – that it's an association 'of victims'. There's a drive to help each other," said Laplaud. "For the annual commemorations for example, it isn't rare for people to say, 'I don't really have the money to come to Paris for two days. Could anyone possibly lend me their couch?' And it gets sorted, really naturally."
'He was so much more than that night'
Zoe Alexander, for one, sings the praises of Life for Paris as "a great support" and "so welcoming" to British survivors and victims' families, like hers. Alexander is making three separate trips this month alone to the trial in Paris, culminating in her own testimony before the court later this month. Her brother Nick Alexander was gunned down at the Bataclan as he manned the Eagles of Death Metal merchandise booth, the lone Briton killed in the attacks that night.
She commends the French court for allowing so many people to speak before it. "The length of the trial is staggering, but I think allowing everybody's voice to be heard and honouring their stories is so important," Alexander told FRANCE 24 from High Wycombe, northwest of London. "Allowing the survivors and the victims' families that space and affording them the respect for their stories is really important in the healing process."
Alexander chose to testify on behalf of Nick's family "to be his voice in this process" and "to speak his name in the courtroom in front of the terrorists", she said. "It's an important thing," she added, although she said her family gave the attackers little thought after that night. Instead, they focused on Nick's legacy, setting up the Nick Alexander Memorial Trust, a charity that raises funds to provide musical equipment to those in need, often through concerts.
"In forming the trust, we were very much of the mind that it allowed us to take back some control from the attackers," Alexander explained. "They had decided when Nick's story ended. And in doing this positive thing we were saying, 'No, we will decide how this ends.' With this positive energy, rather than the darkness the attacks created."
Alexander's testimony in Paris will expound on that sentiment, filling out the story of Nick Alexander – the globetrotting music lover, the clever, funny and charming son, brother, uncle and friend. "Nick was a ball of energy when he was alive. He was a very vital person," his sister said with a laugh. "I don't want him to be trapped forever as a victim ... I want to tell people who Nick was and all the great things being done in his memory. To speak his name and talk about this great person we've lost." She's determined to keep sorrow out of her statement to the court. "I don't want to gratify the attackers with hearing our sadness. I feel Nick deserves to be heard about. He was so much more than that night," she said.
Alexander isn't surprised that foreign plaintiffs are braving nerves and obstacles to return to Paris for their day in court. "The solidarity aspect of standing amongst people who have experienced the same as you, it cannot be underestimated. We found that at every single memorial ceremony on [November] 13th. We're always in Paris for that because standing amongst people, side by side with them, is such an empowering experience that I think is really important for people coming from abroad," she said. "It can be very isolating being involved in something that happened somewhere else, because you don't have that same support network around you. I feel like the city really embraces the story of the attacks and everybody involved in it. I've always felt that coming over."
There is solidarity to be found in the UK too, Alexander said. "We have a lovely survivor community and we're in contact a lot. But we're all in different parts of the country," she explained, with Covid-19 having made gathering trickier of late. "So most of our conversation goes on via messenger or WhatsApp. We're always there to support each other, but nothing takes the place of face-to-face in these situations."
Indeed, Alexander will be at the courthouse in central Paris on Friday to listen to Michael O'Connor and the other British survivors speak.
"It's amazing how little anger there is raging in that community. It peaks and it troughs, but by and large we're not an angry group of people," she said. "I don't know if the trial is going to spark those feelings up again for some people but, genuinely, every time I've been with any gathering of people connected with the attacks, we laugh and it's just a really kind, gentle group of people. We're not sitting here raging and plotting revenge. It's really all about positivity and it's incredible, really."
Perhaps for the foreigners returning to Paris to put the attacks behind them, therein lies the ultimate triumph.