We had just come out from watching a movie. I was in Brittany, having left Paris that morning to attend the annual Noir Sur la Ville crime writing festival in the town of Lamballe. That afternoon I had met with a group of some fifty students at the Lycée Henri Avril who, as a part of their English course, had been reading one of my books. After an hour, talking, answering their questions, they clustered round in small groups to take selfies and went off happily. Later, there was a well-attended interview at the Bibliotheque and then, after an early communal supper, a slow walk through the town to the cinema where the writer Dominique Manotti was introducing J. C. Chador’s 2014 film. A Most Violent Year.
We were just emerging into the foyer after the screening when the first phone call came through: there had been three explosions in Paris. For five minutes, maybe ten, the small space was crowded with people anxiously talking into their mobile phones, while others, still unaware, chatted animatedly about what they had just seen on the screen.
It wasn’t until we arrived back at the hotel, some fifteen or so minutes later, staring up at the television, that the true horror of what had happened – was still happening – struck like a blow to the gut. Many of the people there, most perhaps, had friends in Paris, colleagues, and were anxious to establish that they were safe. Detail after detail slowly emerged. Not two separate attacks, but three, then more. Indiscriminate gunfire close to La Republique, near where I had dinner the night before. A hundred people held hostage. Pictures of ambulance men and police, running. Shaky images from peoples’ mobile phones. So many wounded, so many dead, the numbers rising.
Up in my room I watched the rolling news from the BBC, unable to take my eyes from the screen, the same pictures repeated again and again as if on a loop. Experts on terrorism; bystanders; talking heads. Around two, two-thirty, I made myself switch off and go to bed. By the time I awoke in the morning, the festival, like so many other public events all over France, had been cancelled. Some of the writers who had been staying in the hotel had already packed their bags and left, heading, a number of them, back to Paris; those that had been leaving for the festival from Paris that morning would not now come.
I had been due to return to Paris myself the following day, but it soon became clear that the events that had been scheduled – a radio interview, bookstore signings, a book launch party in a jazz club where I was to read with the pianist Pierre Christophe – would no longer take place. After discussions with the festival organiser and my editor from Rivages, who, thankfully, was there with me, it was agreed that the best thing would be for me to return home via the ferry from St. Malo the next morning.
Which left the rest of Saturday. And thanks largely to the many volunteers on whom the festival depends, what could have been a forlorn, embittered day turned out to be strangely enjoyable, if sad. We ate lunch together, as many as eighty of us, I suppose, seated at long tables in the municipal hall; drank too many espressos and talked in cafés in the afternoon; came together again in the evening for conversation, food and wine. Goodbyes.
By a little after nine the next morning, I was sitting on the upper deck of the St. Malo-Portsmouth ferry staring off across the waters towards the slowly disappearing town. Despite leaving friends behind, it felt right – and there’s no denying this – to be heading towards home and relative safety – safety for now.
What of the country I was leaving behind?
Natalie Nougayréde, The Guardian journalist based in Paris, had this to say on Monday:
France, like the rest of Europe, finds itself at a crossroads.
The danger is visible from statements made by the far right blaming Muslims, or war refugees streaming into Europe, for the Paris attacks. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, called for a closure of French borders immediately. She has her eye on regional elections next month.
France harbours the largest and possibly the best-finder extreme-right party in Europe, and it also has the largest Muslim population in Europe. It has lived through social tensions and crises foe identity, revolving mainly around France’s particular model of secularism, high unemployment, inequality and racial discrimination in the workforce, in housing and elsewhere. This makes it essential for the right messages to be sent out by the government at such a crucial moment.
Hollande will address both chambers of parliament tomorrow. Will he find the words needed to consolidate a national sense of togetherness beyond cultural, social and religious fractures?
On the later evidence, it seems not. In January, after the Charlie Hedbo shootings, Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Vallis, speaking of the reasons why young French Muslims might be open to radicalisation, talked of the “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” with which they were confronted. Now, any such considerations have been pushed into the background. Ramp up the bombing. Home and away, total war. But isn’t that what Isis wants? What they are clamouring for? And aren’t wars on terrorism, history suggests, prone to fail if war is all there is?