Attacks in Paris: In face of mass tragedy, French summon spirit of community

Coordinated attacks at six sites killed at least 129 people Friday night, putting Paris under siege. Parisians quickly moved to help each other, opening their homes and businesses as shelter.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
A lone shoe rested outside the Café Royale in Paris, which cleared its tables Friday night to help support the wounded and those who could not get home immediately.

An orange Vans sneaker, the kind all the kids wear here, lay by itself on a street corner of Paris – both a testament to the terrorist violence unleashed in this city last night but also a symbol of the strength of solidarity that Paris has vowed moving forward.

Overwhelmed by one of the worst terrorist attacks in modern Europe, with at least 129 dead and 352 wounded, no one has yet gotten around to moving the bloodied shoe, left behind by its owner. But it marks the site of one of many acts of kindness that have sustained the populace here: the Café Royal, where the staff quickly cleared all plates and glasses from their tables last night and welcomed all injured in amid unprecedented terror.

As the French take stock of a rampage that marked France's most violent night since World War II – with simultaneous suicide bombings and shootings across six sites, including a concert hall, a soccer stadium, a popular restaurant, and a street full of bars and cafes that was packed on a mild November evening – they are vowing to stand together, expressing a communal strength that was on display from the moment the coordinated attacks began.

​“We tend to live our lives each to our own,” says Elisabeth Grenier, who lives across the street from the Café Royale and watched scores of youths limp to safety through its doors last night. “But in times like this we come together. It’s what gives us strength to move forward.”

Ít’s been less than a year since the French capital was convulsed by the brazen attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket that left 17 people dead at the hands of Islamic extremists. A massive rally that drew world leaders spoke of a unity of spirit at the time. That same spirit emerged last night, almost immediately.

Parisians turned to social media to help and be helped. #PorteOuverte, or "Door Open," quickly trended on Twitter in messages like this, from Florian Duretz, who tweeted, “Send me a message for a safe place in Canal Saint Martin, Please be safe.” His message was retweeted 406 times.  

As ongoing cases of shootings and the unknown whereabouts of assailants were flickering across smart phones and television sets, taxi drivers picked up passengers, driving them home to safety for free or half the cost of a normal ride. Friends who were out called the people who lived closest to where they were, many of them spending the entire night in strangers’ homes.

Ms. Grenier, whose last name is false because she’s reluctant to share her real name, says that she opened her door when she heard crying and mayhem in her stairwell. Two students who live on the second floor had gone out to their balconies, shouting that anyone was welcome, and opening their apartment doors to the injured or anyone else who wanted shelter. Three quickly scrambled in, bloodied and one without a shoe.

At a pizzeria down the street, owner Jean, who also declined to give his last name, opened his doors to those who couldn’t get home and provided free food to everyone too afraid to leave. One young woman knocked on the window and pleaded to come inside. She stayed there until 1:30 a.m.

The news headlines today in France underline a sense of shock, but also determination.

The right-leaning Le Figaro declared: "War in central Paris.” The "terrorist barbarism" has crossed a "historic line," read an editorial in the left-leaning Liberation.

"It is impossible not to link these bloody events with the battles raging in the Middle East. France is playing its part there. It must continue to do so without blinking," wrote Laurent Joffrin in an editorial.

On Saturday morning, the self-described Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, which included the Stade de France stadium, targeted during a friendly soccer match between France and Germany that French President François Hollande had attended. The Islamic State warned in a statement that the acts, which included seven suicide bombings, would be just "the first of the storm," and some on social media praised the strikes as retaliation for France’s military offensive against Islamic State in the Middle East.

Eight attackers have been killed, seven on the suicide missions, and an eighth by authorities, who have said that other assailants may still be at large. In addition to the 129 victims killed, some 350 are injured. On Saturday, French officials said the attackers appeared to be split into three coordinated teams armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and high explosives.

President Hollande called a state of emergency, and tensions in Paris remain high.

The deadliest incident happened at the Bataclan concert hall, where an American rock group was playing to a crowd of more than 1,000 – and uncomfortably close to where the Charlie Hebdo attack took place.

Over the past year, visitors have left bouquets of flowers and candles on the Avenue Richard Lenoir, in memory of the victims of Charlie Hebdo. Now, just up the street, stands the now-barricaded Bataclan concert hall.

Police officers are not allowing passersby to stop. One woman openly wept as she rode her bike past the scene. Rose Ferreira already felt too close to the violence of Charlie Hebdo. “This time I heard the explosions,” she says. And then she got a call from a friend to stay put.

“It’s horrible, horrible,” she says. She made sure her grown children were home. But she’s out today to visit the same friend who contacted her. “We can’t stay inside. That’s not the solution, even if I’m looking right and left around me today,” she says.

But last night, terrified passersby were welcomed inside not only by their neighbors, but complete strangers as well. One restaurant huddled all the patrons to the back of the restaurant on the boss’s orders. Many of them reopened today, hoping for some degree of normalcy.

The Café Royale, however, has not. Next to the Vans sneaker are gloves and a stained sidewalk.

“Exceptional closure today, Saturday Nov. 14” a sign on its door reads.

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