France goes back to facing its monsters. And reopening wounds that have not yet healed. Almost six years after the wave of attacks that left 130 dead and hundreds wounded in Paris, on the night of November 13, 2015, those accused of perpetrating the most serious jihadist attack in French history and a of the worst in Europe. This “trial of the century” in Paris, moreover, coincides with the resurgence of the Islamic threat after the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, which experts say could encourage extremists around the world. In the minds of many French people is also the horror relived just a year ago, when France suffered a new wave of attacks, including the brutal beheading of Professor Samuel Paty, after the beginning of another key process of that terrible 2015: the trial for the attacks against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket, also in Paris.
The case against the perpetrators of the November 2017 attacks is colossal in every way: it took five years of instruction, culminating in 542 procedural volumes and a 348-page indictment. The 1,765 people of 20 nationalities who have constituted themselves as a civil party will be represented by 300 lawyers during the eight long months that the trial is estimated to last. Terrorism and irregular immigration will certainly be hot topics in court, as the process coincides with the French presidential campaign. Among the numerous witnesses summoned to testify are prominent figures such as the then French president, François Hollande, his interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, and then-prosecutor François Molins.
A special court composed of nine magistrates will try the 20 defendants, represented in turn by another 30 lawyers. 14 of the accused will be present, and another 6 will be tried in absentia (most of them allegedly died in armed clashes in the border region between Syria and Iraq). But eyes will surely turn mainly to one of them: Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the three assault squads that that night sowed panic in the streets of Paris and in all the French, in an attack claimed by the so-called Islamic State.
chain of attacks
The horror began at 9:16 pm on that Friday the 13th, when, near the Stadium de France, where a friendly Germany v France was being played in the presence of President Hollande and with more than 80,000 people in the stands, a suicide bomber detonated the vest with explosives he was wearing . Shortly thereafter, phones began ringing at all levels of power. Gunfire and explosions were being recorded in other parts of Paris: an area of downtown bars and the Bataclan concert hall.
It will not be easy for victims and their families to face Abdeslam and the other accused. Some won’t even make it to trial, warns Samia Maktouf, a lawyer for 40 victims. “The victims are not doing well. Many of my clients are very shaken physically and psychologically, and also economically,” he says from his Paris office.
The process will be filmed and stored in the National Archives for posterity, something that has only happened in 12 previous trials, including the one of the Charlie Hebdo and the Nazi Klaus Barbie in 1987. In addition, an encrypted internet connection service was established so that victims can follow the proceedings without going to the former Palace of Justice on the island of La Cité, in central Paris. Because everyone, present or absent, “wants the process to happen,” says Maktouf. “It is very important to them, it is absolutely essential that, after six long years, it happens”, as this will be “a sort of recognition” of these people as victims. In the same way, he adds, “they hope to understand, to know how they got there.”
For the prosecutor François Molins, the trial should also contribute to “participating in the construction of a collective memory both nationally and even at European level.” “It is our shared values that are attacked by this indiscriminate terrorism, these mass killings,” he said at a meeting with European journalists. That is why it is essential that the process continues, no matter how many wounds it reopens. He himself says that what he saw that terrible night, when he was one of the first authorities to visit the places attacked, still haunts him today. “There are very strong images that I will never forget. Those on the terraces and all those bodies lying on the ground. Bataclan’s, with this heap of bodies in the ditch. And the sounds: the Bataclan concert was being recorded and was not interrupted during the attack. The most terrible thing is that you hear bursts of shots, but also many isolated shots. It’s the executions,” recalls the French Supreme Court’s attorney-general today, in his office on the Quai des Horloges, a few steps from the 700 square meter room built in the Palace of Justice to hold the mega-trial.
The entire site will be specially protected for as long as the process takes, until the end of May. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin this week urged all those responsible for the country’s security to maintain a “high level of vigilance” in the face of a potential terrorist threat “both external and internal”. A precaution that, given the wave of attacks during the process of Charlie Hebdo last year, it is not commonplace, considers Molins. “The threat [terrorista] evolved, but as the head of the intelligence services said, ‘the beast did not die’. The Islamic State no longer has the capacity to send troops to carry out actions of this type, but jihadism has metastasized: when you see the evolution in the Sahel, in eastern and western Africa and in Afghanistan, you see that the problem is not overcome. Furthermore, there is this ‘atmospheric jihadism’, as Gilles Kepel says, with people permeable to an ideology that continues to present France as the number one enemy of Islam and Muslims. The threat is still there.”
sign up on here to receive the daily newsletter of EL PAÍS Brasil: reports, analyses, exclusive interviews and the main information of the day in your e-mail, from Monday to Friday. sign up also to receive our weekly newsletter on Saturdays, with highlights of coverage for the week.