One week after the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, I am finally able to speak with friends in France and Germany. Jean Faucheur is a Paris-based artist who has studios in Saint-Denis and Belleville, close to where the attacks took place. Arnaud Muller is a Parisian now living in the Alsace region on the border of Germany and France; his sister, Corinne, lives a few blocks from the Bataclan nightclub where scores of concert goers died.
Arnaud and Jean are my “French connections”; I met them (on separate occasions) many years ago on early trips to Paris. Despite long gaps, our lives continue to intertwine like errant strands of DNA. I am forever delighted (and never quite surprised) when our paths intersect, virtually or geographically. Jean and I reconnected most recently via social media; Arnaud and I may touch base this winter in of all places, Joshua Tree, where he is coming with his wife and two babies who I have yet to meet. I am beyond relieved that they escaped the devastation of Nov. 13.
Back when I met Jean and Arnaud, the specter of ISIS didn’t exist. The Twin Towers would continue to soar over New York City for years to come. No one predicted the day would arrive when the threat of Islamic State terrorism would drop a surreal pall over daily conversations about (just about everything) from vacation plans to reservoirs to study abroad – creating a collective anxiety that resembles nothing so much as a backlog of apocalyptic Hollywood scripts.
If that sounds crass, maybe it’s because I’m still too distant from acrid reality to see, smell or taste it.
Jean says his studio in Saint-Denis in the north of Paris is “quite close to the war zone….Just a few days ago they found the terrorist [ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud] there. I have heard the helicopters going on.” The removal of Abaaoud brought momentary relief. “Even if nothing is finished. We had all these events in January with Charlie Hebdo. We thought [the massacre at the satirical newspaper] was very strong, very violent, but now it is finished.” This time it’s different: “It is finished but there will be other attacks. In January, the target was Jewish people and journalists; now it’s everyone.”
People naturally come together after a tragedy seeking solace and safety and a buffer against terrible physical and psychic trauma. But after the mass shootings in Paris, citizens were forced to stay inside under threat that large gatherings might provoke another attack. The deep human instincts of compassion and fear warring against each other was “paralyzing,” says Jean. “In January, we had this violent scene but two days later we had this huge manifestation…A million people [gathering in solidarity]. We cannot do that now so there is a kind of frustration. We cannot have a collective catharsis.
“In Paris it is raining, it is very empty. There is a kind of stuck feeling. It’s a collective body pain. When you have friends who have been killed in this – in the Bataclan or the bars – you can feel your fear and your sadness….It is very diffuse, your energy is very down.”
He describes a uniquely moving funeral about to take place. “A woman who died will be buried tomorrow morning; she was very interested in street art….The family asked street artists to do something on her coffin.” Jean is a well-known, even iconic figure in French graffiti; he was there from its beginnings, hijacking Paris billboards with aerosol paint and making art with Keith Haring in New York City. He is moved and honored to be paying tribute to a stranger’s life by painting on her casket.
We talk a bit longer, the conversation reeling from formless speculation to the telling detail. He tells how the day after the attacks a child threw firecrackers at Place de la République and 150 people panicked and ran for cover. He says a bit ruefully that “in French when a woman is very beautiful, very gorgeous, she is a bomb. When you say ‘a clap’ [in English] a bomb explodes – but in French it means you have fun.”
I tell Jean how in the US, the NRA (and Donald Trump) have seized the moment to tout gun ownership. “In the Constitution of America everyone has the right to have a weapon. But, they still think they are living in the 19th century,” he says. The idea of widespread gun ownership is distasteful to most French, though the law’s response to the events of Nov. 13 is cause for a searing national debate. The country has three levels of law enforcement; not all of them are armed. It also has extremely tough gun laws, but this hasn’t stemmed the flow of illegal weaponry because France, as part of the European Union’s Schengen Area, shares no internal border controls. (The Schengen Area comprises 26 EU countries covering 1.6 million miles, with 400 million people free to range without baggage or passport checks.)
It is impossible to wrap one’s mind around what happened in Paris. For Jean, it is too early to consider his response as an artist. He describes healing as active process: “It is individual work; we have to deal with it ourselves as well as the collective work.”
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In the Alsace region, my friend Arnaud is feeling reverberations of the violence in pragmatic ways, daily patterns disrupted by the tragedy in Paris. He lives in Kehl am Rhein, on the German side of the Rhine River, and commutes to work in Strasbourg, France. “Since the terrorist events in Paris, the traffic is [more] controlled,” he says. “Sometimes it’s very fluid, almost as if there is no control. But sometimes it takes up to one hour to wait, only (to possibly) be checked.” His commute is 40 kilometers, or about 25 miles round trip; recently, he has taken to commuting on a Riese & Müller electric bike to avoid the backup.
On my first trip to France I spent a month with my good friend at his sister Corinne’s apartment in Montmartre. Corinne is a designer of beautiful, artistic home accessories; she worked for Christian Dior at the time. Though a vegetarian, she would whip up the most delicious carnivorous meals for guests with the instincts of a born gastronome. Her then-tiny daughter Zoe helped me practice my non-existent French by reading the comic, Les Aventures de Tintin, together. These are some of my fondest memories. Today, Corinne lives a few minutes’ walk from the Bataclan. “I spoke with her the day following the attacks,” says Arnaud. “She was shocked.” His understatement hangs in the air.
Arnaud pedals across the Rhine on a bike/pedestrian bridge which, unlike the car bridge, is unguarded. A boon for cyclists, he says it also presents a slightly absurd hole in security at the edge of Strasbourg, the official seat of the European Parliament.
He has been a gear fanatic for as long as I’ve known him, and won’t complain about the lengthy open-air commute even as temperatures plummet: “Autumn was super – unusually sunny, dry and warm – until one-and-a-half weeks ago. Two weeks ago, it was almost 20 Celsius [68 F.]; now it’s below zero Celsius at night and from 3 to 15 degrees during the day.”
Arnaud’s feelings waver between grief and disgust and anger. Of his fellow countrymen he says, “I think most people try to act and live and go on normally. Some succeed…”
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A few days after the Paris massacre, French Premier Manuel Valls warned of chemical attacks and France’s expanding state of emergency in this New York Times video.
“What is new is the operating methods, the nature of the strikes. The way they kill is constantly evolving. The grim imagination of those giving the orders has no limits. Assault rifles, beheadings, human bombs, knives or everything at once, perpetrated by individuals, or in this case, by very well organized commandos. We can’t exclude anything today, and I say this with all necessary caution, but we know, we keep in mind, that there could be the risk of chemical or biological weapons….The state of emergency needs to be extended throughout France both on the mainland and in our overseas territories….The period we put before you is three months.” ~ French Premier Manuel Valls
- By Lisa Kinoshita