Fifth anniversary commemorations for attacks that killed 130 people in the Paris region in November 2015 got underway Friday, under reduced conditions due to the Covid epidemic. With recent attacks in France and Austria, survivors stressed the importance of remembering victims and resisting political manipulation of terrorism.
The milestone fifth-anniversary commemorations of the 13 November 2015 attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, Stade de France stadium and bars and cafés around eastern Paris have been greatly downsized due to the Covid-19 epidemic.
Plans for an expanded ceremony with speeches and concerts at Paris city hall have been cancelled, and ceremonies will be reduced to solemn tributes attended by a handful of officials and representatives of memorial groups.
“It was not a big surprise,” says Alexis Lebrun, a survivor of the Bataclan attack and spokesperson for victims’ group Life for Paris. “We could see that the epidemic peak would be reached in the middle of November, so it was pretty obvious that what we planned was going to be cancelled.”
Survivors are also marking the anniversary within a month of a new series of attacks, including the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in Conflans near Paris, murders of three people at the Notre Dame church in Nice as well as a shooting that killed four in Vienna, Austria.
“The attacks in Nice, Conflans and Vienna, mixed with the pandemic situation and the fact that you can’t leave your home, makes a lot of people in our group feel very lonely,” Lebrun says. “The inability to gather and share as we used to do every year is a big disappointment.”
Warning against political manipulation
The recent attacks and reactions to them have made it even more difficult for victims and survivors of terrorism to keep the emphasis on memorial efforts.
“There is constant tension between their [victims’] private experience and the political meaning being given to it,” says Sarah Gensburger, a social scientist specialising in history and memory with the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
The recent attacks have come in the context of French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to crack down on “political Islam” and “Islamist separatism”, and the president has been at pains to distance his administration’s efforts from the Islamic faith.
Following Paty’s beheading, Macron defended the right of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed, which in turn fuelled anti-French protests and calls for boycotts in the Muslim world.
“There is a quite a difference between the official reaction in 2015 and today’s reaction to this new wave of terrorism,” she says. “They [victims’ groups] don’t want their pain and loss be used to fight Islam and Muslims as a group. They want to fight the radical use of Islam and terrorism, but no more.”
“As we say every year, we try to convey a message of unity and solidarity, which is very hard to defend right now in our country,” Lebrun says. “The French situation is extremely explosive, there are a lot of feuds between the politics involved, and we are trying to stay away from this.
“The message […] is just to respect the time of grief for the recent attacks’ victims, whether it’s Vienna, Nice or Conflans, rather than using what’s happened for political agendas.”
From popular to official commemoration
Organisers have adapted to health constraints by offering online tributes. The solemn ceremonies will be live-streamed and concerts by metal group Queens of the Stone Age and the Paris Chamber Orchestra, performing an original classical composition, will be broadcast online on Friday evening.
But the absence of gatherings in Paris breaks with the previous commemorations where solemn official tributes were followed by more festive events with speeches and concerts organised by victims’ groups.
“There won’t be any popular commemoration, which is very tragic for the victim groups,” Gensburger says. “All of the collective dynamics of memory will be forbidden this year, and this is harder being the fifth anniversary.”
Gensburger has studied a phenomenon of spontaneous and anonymous street tributes that popped up around Paris in the months following the attacks, authoring Memory on My Doorstep: chronicles of the Bataclan Neighbourhood, Paris 2015-2016 and co-editing the recently-published Les Mémoriaux du 13 novembre.
The fifth anniversary had been designed as a transition year towards more state-coordinated commemorations, part of a wider effort that includes building a national memorial centre for terrorist attacks.
“It was supposed to be a year when the grassroots commemoration was going to move to an official, state-sponsored commemoration, and this passing is not going to happen,” Gensburger says. “It will be a direct break from one to the other.”