At first, the loud blasts sounded like a faulty amplifier to those packed into the crowd at Paris’s Bataclan theater. But within seconds, Arthur Dénouveaux realized he was hearing the retort of automatic gunfire. As pandemonium broke out he flung himself to the floor, and slithered on his belly towards an exit—a skill he learned while serving in the French military. He knew that if he stood up, even for an instant, he would die. For 10 minutes, he moved inch by inch towards a doorway he knew well from previous concerts, while all around him, young people attempting to flee were shot and killed. When he finally made it out into a side street, trembling, he could scarcely believe he had made it out alive. Ninety others inside the venue were not so fortunate, nor forty more killed in the four-hour assault on the French capital. Five years on, Dénouveaux is still marked by the experience. “When November comes my sleep is really not good. I wake up tense and nervous,” he says. He has yet to see another live concert.
As the French capital marks the fifth anniversary on Friday of the terrorist attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, the memories remain vivid for survivors like Dénouveaux, who are still grappling with complex psychological problems as a result. The country is still wrestling with a national debate over France’s relationship with Islam, as extremists have continued to stage lone wolf attacks. And the threat of another mass terrorist attacks has not gone away, as the recent (though less deadly) assault in Vienna has shown.
Yet for many, the question that haunts them is why they were targeted that November night. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo attacks in early January 2015, in which the victims were journalists, the Nov. 13 attacks seemed far more random. The nine ISIS attackers, themselves young men, seemed to target their own peers—and in the process created what came to be known as the “Bataclan Generation,” young French whose adulthood has been forever marked by the tragedy. “Everyone thinks about this to some extent,” says Alexis Lebrun, a survivor of the Bataclan massacre, who was 26 that night. “Our generation has been extremely influenced by the events.”
The killers were native Europeans, some from Belgium, and others from Paris neighborhoods just a short train ride from where they opened fire on their fellow citizens. They targeted the easy-going lifestyle of French youth like themselves, who were accustomed to spending their weekends congregating in Paris’s bars and street cafés, and at music gigs. “It was an attack on youth culture,” says David Fritz Goeppinger, who was 23 that night at the Bataclan. He was among 10 concertgoers taken hostage for two and a half hours during the final assault on the Bataclan. “We are free to drink alcohol, to go to concerts,” he says. “It was a direct attack on young people who could do that.”
A trial of two suspected planners of the killings is set to begin in September 2021, which may yet bring a measure of closure. But for many in Paris, life has not been the same since the attacks. It remains an indelible marker on countless thousands of people, even those who were not at any of the attack sites that night; millions sat in horror for hours that night, listening to police and ambulance sirens, and glued to the unfolding disaster on T.V. as the attackers across the north-east areas of the city, shooting randomly at crowds of people. “Everyone knows where they when 9/11 happened, and in France it is the same thing for the Paris attacks,” says Fritz Goeppinger. “And especially that is true for young people. We have a lot of friends.”
A changed Paris
The attacks put the city on guard, and it has never been able to let it down since. Armed soldiers still patrol the train stations and sites like the Eiffel Tower, while bags are searched at the doors of department stores. And in each school in France, children as young as six practice regular terror drills.
For those who were targeted or saw the violence up close, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has been an ever-present reality. For many, the symptoms seem barely to have dissipated in the years since, according to both those who were there, and researchers who have monitored their emotional state over five years. “There are people who are extremely disabled, not necessarily physically, but psychologically,” says Lebrun, who is active in Life for Paris, a group of people who endured the Nov. 13 attacks.
The organization formed online shortly after the attacks, and now comprises about 800 survivors. Many stay in touch through a closed Facebook group, where they ask for help, offer resources, or simply share thoughts. “People have a lot of difficulties with family, friends, everything related to social activities,” he says. The organization is planning a Zoom gathering on Friday evening, for survivors to share thoughts and memories on the fifth anniversary.
Denis Peschanski, a historian who has monitored the experiences of 316 survivors as part of a long-term study funded in part by public research agencies, says that up until last year, “more than 50% still had PTSD.” Among the most common experiences the researchers found were flashbacks of bloodshed or dead bodies, still playing repeatedly in people’s heads. Others avoid taking public transportation, and they sidestep the neighborhoods where the attacks occurred, Peschanski says.
Goeppinger says that when police finally rescued him after hours of being held hostage in the Bataclan, they told him not to look up. But he did, and saw “corpses and blood all over.” He is haunted by that image, along with the thought that he survived, while many others did not. “Why am I alive?” he says. “It is a question that is very, very difficult.” For three years after the attacks, he says, “I was very wounded, psychologically fragile.”
Lebrun says he has suffered similar long-term effects. He survived the Bataclan massacre by laying face down on the floor, playing dead, not daring to move an inch, while the ISIS gunmen roamed the Bataclan, shooting concertgoers at point-blank range. He says it took him nearly four years before he dared venture inside a movie theater, and he still has difficulty taking public transportation.
But even while dealing with their trauma, the survivors also made major life choices. Fitz Goeppinger, now 28, broke up with his girlfriend just weeks after the attack and began a relationship with a long-time friend—now his wife—feeling strongly that he wanted the emotional support of a family of his own. “At our age, that is quite rare,” he says. Lebrun also decided to marry his girlfriend. Not able to face celebrating with a large Paris wedding, the two flew to Las Vegas six months after the attack, and tied the knot at the Graceland Wedding Chapel.
Indeed, for many, committing to work has been more difficult than committing to love. Fritz Goeppinger quit his bartending job two weeks after the attack, and then spent more than two years unable to work at all, before becoming a photographer. Lebrun resigned his job at a public-relations firm shortly after the attack, and became a freelance culture writer. Among members of Life for Paris, Lebrun says, “struggles with employers is one of the main issues. They cannot focus on work, and a lot of people changed their work completely.” Having come so close to being killed, “people felt they could not work in meaningless, bullshit jobs.”
Dénouveaux, who serves as the President of Life for Paris, and was 29 the night he escaped from the Bataclan by slithering silently across the floor, was one such person. He says he is among many survivors who have felt a need to “live life to the fullest.” Shortly after the attack, he quit his job as a banker and began a small investment company of his own, because he was unable to fit back into his old work environment. “People were wondering how damaged I was,” he says. “I could see it in their eyes.”
Reliving the attacks
In interviews, many survivors say they have undergone therapy to process their experiences. But the trauma has proven hard to shake as ISIS attacks have continued periodically in the past five years. Fritz Goeppinger recalls staggering, stunned, down a flight of stairs in 2016 after his phone pinged with news of ISIS’s bomb attacks on a Brussels train station and airport, which killed 32 people. Last month, he published a book about the Bataclan attack, titled “One Day in Our Life,” in which he describes feeling overwhelmed watching the T.V. footage of the attack on the Nice promenade in July, 2016, when an ISIS supporter killed 87 people by driving a truck through a crowded Bastille Day celebration.
Even smaller scale attacks have the potential to retraumatize. The beheading last month of a middle-school history teacher, Samuel Paty, for having shown his teenage students cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, stunned France—and particularly Christophe Naudin, who himself is a middle-school history teacher, and was inside the Bataclan the night of the attack. He survived that attack by hiding in a small storage room; a close friend who went to the concert with him was killed. Grieving and traumatized, Naudin began a diary after the attack as a way to heal, and finally turned three years of journal entries into a book, called “Diary of a Bataclan Survivor,” which was published last month. The anxiety he experiences every year as Nov.13 is expecially pronounced in 2020 with the killing of Paty, and the isolation the pandemic has brought. “I am not in great shape,” he says.
Soon however many survivors will be asked to relive their experiences again, this time in the name of bringing the guilty to justice. The trial is due to begin next September of two alleged ISIS members, Salah Abdeslam and Mohamed Abrini, who were arrested in Brussels months after the Paris attacks, and are believed to have been involved in planning both those killings and the bombings in the Belgian capital six months later. The trial is expected to run into 2022, and could involve up to 1,500 witnesses—including many of the Bataclan survivors. That could be another step in overcoming trauma, according to Peschanski, the researcher who has tracked 316 survivors. “It will be very, very difficult for these people,” he says. “But it will be absolutely crucial for them from my point of view.“
Those who endured the Bataclan’s nightmare that night agree. The prospect of the trial has given them new purpose, as they begin to prepare testimony and meet with lawyers. “It is a horizon for us,” Fritz Goeppinger says. “It will be very powerful to stand there, and see those people who did this, and look them in the eye.” Do they hope to hear expressions of regrets from those in the dock? “No,” he says. “We do not expect remorse.”