What the November 13 Attacks Taught Paris

For years, deadly terrorist strikes in France were widely treated as isolated incidents. That changed forever in 2015.

A crowd gathered by the Place du Capitol in Toulouse, France on November 17, 2015. (Fred Lancelot / Reuters)

PARIS—Three years ago, on November 13, 2015, terrorists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State opened fire in coordinated attacks across Paris, killing 130 people and wounding 494 others at the Bataclan concert hall and nearby cafés. Earlier that evening, two suicide bombers had blown themselves up outside the Stade de France, Paris’s main sports arena, where 80,000 people, including then-President François Hollande and one of his sons, were watching a soccer match. The November 13 attacks were the crescendo of a year that began with the slaughter of 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and four more at a kosher supermarket, a year whose aftershocks reverberated well into the summer of 2016, when another terrorist drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 and wounding hundreds of others.

Judicial investigations into the November 13 attacks are still ongoing today. Several alleged attackers are in pretrial detention in France and Belgium. At least five others alleged to have been involved remain at large, with warrants out for their arrests, and about a dozen other terrorists died in the attacks. The French state has paid some €300 million to victims and their families, according to a recent report in Le Monde.

I think back on that Friday evening in November—I was having dinner at the home of friends—and vividly remember the feeling of learning about the attacks through Twitter and television. A feeling first of panic and breathlessness, followed by a kind of calm, even numbness. A feeling of fear mixed with anger and confusion. A feeling of resignation mixed with a desire for immediate action, of wanting to do something. A feeling of wanting to understand what was going on, to figure it out.

But how to figure it out? How to make sense of history when it’s happening? In the past three years, a range of books and at least one documentary film have made significant attempts at reconstructing what happened that day. Some books make an important contribution by exploring the backgrounds of some of the attackers and mapping out terrorist networks in France. Others probe why these attacks might have occurred, and why some young Muslim men (or converts) choose to become jihadists. But these books only tell certain parts of the story. They offer important information for the historical record, but too often read more like police reports, indictments, or academic studies than textured works of literature.

November 13: Attack on Paris, the three-part Netflix documentary that appeared earlier this year, captures the immediacy, confusion, and adrenaline of the night of November 13, drawing on amateur footage from that night and testimony from survivors, rescue workers, and officials, including Hollande. The film is an important and moving historical document. The owner of La Bonne Bière, where the attackers opened fire, speaks painfully in it of how his wife was among the people shot and killed at the sidewalk café. Survivors of the Bataclan talk of how they climbed through a false ceiling to hide from the terrorists. The former president recalls having to determine whether to evacuate the stadium, ultimately choosing not to, and telling his son who was sitting in the stands to stay put just like everyone else. Others describe how they were taken hostage and feared they would die. One recalls a smell that was “a mix of iron, blood, and gunpowder.” Another breaks down in tears at the recollection of the high mound of dead bodies in the pit of the concert hall, where more than 80 people were killed.

The November 13 terrorists took aim at people of all races and religions. And the attacks were seen as targeting everything Paris stands for and holds most dearly: its mixing of cultures, its cafés, its hedonism, its good life. No one was spared. The attackers “hit the thing that makes Paris great: A sense of freedom, of appreciating others. Our taste for life took a hit,” Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, says in the documentary.

That day marked a shift in attitudes about earlier attacks in France, which were not seen as targeting society at large, even if today, in hindsight, they are identified as harbingers. When a terrorist opened fire outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, killing a rabbi and three children, this was seen by some of the bien pensant of France as “only” targeting Jews. (Although during a nine-day shooting spree, the same terrorist also killed several French paratroopers of North African origin.) At the time, Jewish community leaders complained that French authorities hadn’t taken the threat of anti-Semitic violence seriously enough. When terrorists opened fire on Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in January 2015, those attacks were seen as similarly narrow in scope: aimed again at Jews, and now also at free speech. But the November 13 attacks made clear to much of French society that everyone was a potential target.

Several recent books have tried to grapple with the years leading up to the attacks, and the struggles—if not failures—of the French authorities to grasp the magnitude of the jihadist threat. In Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West, which appeared in English last year, Gilles Kepel, one of France’s most prominent scholars of Islam, makes a case for how Salafist jihadism, a religious ideology, took root in France through charismatic imams, who then proselytized through the internet.

The role of French security services in tracking down jihadists in Syria (with the help of the United States), and the inner workings of ISIS’s own security apparatus—which had the idea of striking France—are the focus of Les Espions de la Terreur (The Spies of Terror). It’s a vivid, fast-paced new book by Matthieu Suc, an investigative journalist at the website Mediapart, that appeared this month in French. Through portraits of some of France’s most notorious recent jihadists, the book provides yet more evidence of how France, more than any other country in Europe, is grappling with homegrown terrorists.

This is also a theme in The Returned, by the extremely well-sourced journalist David Thomson, which traces the lives of several French jihadists who went to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and then attempted to come back. (It appeared in English earlier this year and in French in 2016.) Thomson writes darkly of how in 2013 and 2014, few people in France believed him when he said French jihadists in Syria were plotting attacks on French soil, as a French jihadist unit in Aleppo had told him in 2013. He writes that the same Aleppo unit he had communicated with in 2014, and which had said it was planning unspecified attacks in France, was later found responsible for the November 13 attacks.

These works of reportage and intellectual history are important for the historical record and for advancing our understanding of terrorism in France. They are not works of cultural remembrance and are not intended to be. They have information, but not always heart. And that is why of all these books that touch on the attacks of 2015, the one that is most affecting—for the beauty of its prose, the complexity of its emotions, its sense of irony and humor and pain, its ability to exist in the moment and to transcend it as a universal testimony—is Le Lambeau.

It’s an extraordinary memoir by Philippe Lançon, a cultural critic, writer, and journalist whose jaw was blown apart in the attack on Charlie Hebdo when a terrorist barged in on an editorial meeting and opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others. A best seller in France since it debuted earlier this year, Le Lambeau recently won the Prix Femina, one of France’s highest literary awards, and will appear in English next year.

Lançon writes of his months in Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, his slow recovery, and his pain eased by morphine and Bach, offering an account interspersed with memories of his life, his childhood, his family, his first marriage, and his days reporting in Cuba and Africa and the Middle East, textured with references to the literature and music and culture that has shaped him—jazz and Baudelaire and Kafka. Through his flashbacks, he reclaims his life.

The book’s title can be literally translated as “tatters.” It’s a line from a play by Jean Racine, but it can also refer to a shred of flesh. Lançon introduces the concept at a moment when doctors decide to graft a piece of skin from his leg onto his face to help reconstruct it, one of no fewer than 17 surgeries he has undergone since the attack. He captures the morning of the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in excruciating, poetic detail from memory, and later from reading the police report, where he discovers, among other things, that one of his colleagues, a graphic artist, died with his pen still in his hand, “like a resident of Pompeii blocked in lava, before he even knew that the eruption had taken place.” He recalls the screams of his colleagues, shouts of Allahu akbar, the dry sound of bullets.

For much of his hospital stay, Lançon is unable to speak, and with three unbandaged fingers he communicates by writing on a slate. One day, the nurses attending to him are doing a crossword puzzle. “Madame Bovary in four letters” is one clue. They’re stumped. Lançon takes his slate and writes, simply, “Emma.” This is one of countless passages in the book that moved me: Here was someone in great pain, the target of an attack with geopolitical importance, trying to maintain his humanity through his intense personal culture. This is why Le Lambeau stands out amid all the other accounts of the attacks—for Lançon’s lovely prose and the subtleties of his mind.

At one point, Lançon starts to read the papers and comes upon references to the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo; he is struck by the sheer quantity of nonsense and “the capacity of the contemporary world to yammer on with explanations and commentary of absolutely no significance.” He refers to the attackers as “the Brothers K.,” as in the Dostoevsky novel. “The brouhaha around the Brothers K. was a Dostoevsky epidemic,” he writes. “Everyone imagined himself to be the epileptic novelist, everyone wanted to understand and reckon with the acts of the two men in custody.” There has been a lot of journalism, as well there should be. But Le Lambeau is literature, and as such it goes far deeper. It is not an overtly political book, but it is a beautiful and subtle defense of everything the terrorists attacked.

Reading Le Lambeau, I understood how the terrorist attacks had affected me. After the initial fear wore off, rather than making me want to leave—the perennial prerogative of the expat, the voluntary immigrant—they had in fact made me feel closer to France, more admiring of its culture, more sympathetic to its flaws and weaknesses. Above all, the attacks made me realize that I actually lived in Paris, that the flat gray November sky was my sky, too, and it would be wise to start to look around. When, in the aftermath of the attacks, signs cropped up across the city with the centuries-old Latin motto of Paris, Fluctuat nec mergitur (“She is tempest-tossed but does not sink”), it resonated. And still does.