Saturday 23 Feb 2019 | 04:16 | SYDNEY
Saturday 23 Feb 2019 | 04:16 | SYDNEY

Paris terror attacks: Experiencing the panic up close



15 November 2015 10:06

What started as a Friday evening on the town for my wife and I turned into a long night of panic, sirens and flashing lights. The morning after, with most public places and buildings, department stores, even cinemas and parks closed, is the time for first reflections on the consequences of Paris' night of terror.

No, we were not hurt, but were close enough for the waves of panic on the 'Grands Boulevards' of Paris to wash over us, resulting in an experience as unreal, absurd and hopefully singular as any I will live through.

The first inkling came when the leading lady of the delightful musical comedy Mistinguett, about the life and times of the Parisian singer and diva of the roaring twenties, unexpectedly reappeared on the proscenium after the standing ovations and curtain calls had finally died down. Still in costume but clearly in her everyday voice, she related that 'shootings' had occurred in the area and that we should not linger outside the theatre but head home immediately.

Once outside, we did see and hear police, fire brigade and ambulances vehicles, but at first sight not more than were to be expected on an unusually balmy November night in a metropolis like Paris. So ahead we went towards the cozy little restaurant five minutes away this side of the Place de la République where we had booked a table for our after-show supper. Yet at that point a large crowd came towards us, shouting, gesticulating and breaking unexpectedly into a trot. Swept into a small side road of the large Boulevard de St Martin we heard that a hostage-taking had occurred at the Bataclan, a sort of former twin sister of the Folies Bergères which had turned into a rock venue in recent years.

Now, the Bataclan was not far away but still on the opposite side of République, so after some hesitation we continued, since we had a reservation and we were hungry, too.

Suddenly, a loud noise from the Boulevard. My wife says 'shots' and I reply 'I think not', as it sounds different to the dimly remembered live ammo exercises in my long gone army days. But a young woman runs by, gripping my arm and shouting with fear, 'viens, viens, they are shooting from cars at all of us'. We all race into the opposite direction. I distinctly remember thinking at that second how absurd that was, though of course it wasn't, as it turned out later.

Hours later and by foot we made it home, as buses had disappeared, some but not all entrances to the Metro had closed and taxis, including of the Uber kind, were impossible to get.

What now? It's far too early to come to any definite conclusions on what will doubtlessly be far reaching ramifications from what some local pundits have already termed France's 9/11. This strikes me as overblown in view of the different dimensions and characteristics of the respective terrorist acts. It could well turn out that we are still in realm of basically nationally inspired attacks, albeit not only claimed but also aided and abetted by ISIS. At the time of writing, a Syrian passport has just been found where a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Stade de France.

On the internal security front, one recurrent remark, especially from non-French experts, is to express surprise at the apparent failure of French security services to pick up signs of the impending attack. This especially in a country which is praised for fairly strict gun controls and thus the ease with which the dozen or so automatic assault weapons the terrorists used should have been detected.

A second internal point relates to the official response to the attack, specifically the shutting down of activity in public spaces under special état de siège legislation not invoked since the end of World War II. The present shut-down is nearly total, on the grounds that some of the Friday night terrorists could still be at large and that the possibility of copycat acts is high. This is all very understandable and probably justified for a short period of time. But the question will invariably come up as to the tipping point: where does justified state care for the protection of citizens start playing into hands of the terrorist perpetrators, who of course can hope for nothing better than shutting down life as we normally know it?

On the external front, the new patchwork coalition to eliminate ISIS will become more determined, especially militarily, thus helping Russia to score short term points in its role as self-appointed anti-terrorist leader. Just as with al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11, the ISIS Caliphate will now be in French cross-hairs and thus be brought down eventually, probably with assistance from the US. The French President, speaking on the eve of the attack outside the just liberated Bataclan, left no doubt that Paris will be newly determined ('impitoyable'). Hollande, who fully counts on running for a second five-year term, can do no less than come up to the standard set by Washington.

This, however, does not mean Assad will be moved down much from his position as the West's public enemy number 1. The bloodstained baby dictator in Damascus sealed his fate with a remark yesterday suggesting France had brought this terrorist act on itself with persistent policies of aiding his enemies. France might not be the power it once was, but that could turn out to be one provocation too many. Thus the most likely short term consequence of Paris' night of terror might be movement on the Syrian front.

Photo by Getty/Thierry Chesnot.

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