OVER THE last two evenings, at the time tourists usually fill up the city’s cafes and restaurants, thousands of Paris residents have been gathering at the historic Republique square to signal that the country hasn’t been cowed by Friday night’s attacks.
“Fear is defeat,” read one poster. “Paris will survive,” said another. “I am human,” declared a third. Some came carrying roses, others lit candles in memory of the 129 people killed, and the hundreds battling serious injuries.
They sat on chairs outside the Republique district’s cafes, just metres from the Bataclan concert hall, just as others were doing on the night of the strikes. “I’d usually have stayed home on a Sunday,” said Philippe Plessy, a Paris resident. “I thought it was important to be here today.”
In spite of a curfew imposed by law, the first imposed on the city since 1944, life has rapidly recovered. The streets were quiet on Saturday night, but Sunday saw large crowds at restaurants and bars.
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Three days of official mourning will end on Monday; stores, offices and schools are expected to work normally.
For many French people, the attacks — like the killings of cartoonists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — were an assault not just on human lives, but on the country’s founding principles.
France treasures its tradition of “laicite”, which centres around keeping religion out of public life — a legacy of its long and bloody history of religious wars.
The statue at the centre of Republique square, where mourners have gathered since the attacks, is an allegory for the French founding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Fears that the threat to those principles isn’t coming from just one direction, though, kept many away from the crowds.
Shoaib Ahmad was taking a break from work in the kitchens of an upmarket Parisienne nightclub on the Rue Bichat, when one group of attackers opened fire on the premises. “I was sitting behind the bar when the firing began,” he said. “The owner immediately ordered the shutters drawn down, and we all barricaded ourselves up to the third floor.”
The nightclub’s staff and guests remained inside the premises until 3 am, Ahmad said, until police told them “it was safe to leave”. He saw seven bodies outside — patrons and staff shot dead by one of the three attack squads.
“I couldn’t sleep for two nights because I kept hearing the screams in my head,” said the Bangladesh-born chef, who came to Paris decades ago.
“The truth is, though, that I’m even more afraid of what this will mean for us in the future. There are people in France who hate Muslims, and this will give them reason to hate us more,” said Ahmad.
Ever since the attack, Ahmad said, he’s avoided discussions on what happened, and why. “I’m just concerned with making a living,” he said.
In some sections of the Muslim community, the attacks have sparked off dark, conspiratorial murmurs. “This is a plot,” said taxi driver Mohammad Rafiq, a former Pakistan air force engineer who has stayed in the country since 1972, when he refused to return home after a training course.
“This is a plot to drag Europe into a war, and throw us Muslims out,” he said. “The media here won’t tell you that because it’s all owned by Jews.”