This piece was submitted by Harley Geffner, an academic year K.U. Leuven student, who was traveling in Paris on 11/13.
On Saturday afternoon in Paris, in the wake of the massive attack that left 132 dead and counting, an unsettling calm hung over the city. The silence was deafening around Place de la République, an area that connects the 10th and 11th arrondisements, where many of the attacks took place. The calm spread over the city was in stark contrast to the unrest felt by the people. The trendy République neighborhood, where many young Parisians sit at outdoor cafes, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, was on edge. The patrons normally populating these cafes were replaced by empty chairs facing the empty streets. The usually bustling Place de la République was in mourning.
By the Sunday following the attacks, the mood in Paris changed from one of solemnity to one of solidarity. The denizens of Paris banded together with a strength and determination, as citizens crowded the streets, going about their usual daily business. The goal of terrorism is generally to interrupt normal life, depriving people of their regular lifestyle, and to inspire terror. Although frightened by the attack, many Parisians were determined not to let that fear guide their daily lives. As one sign with an image of the Eifel tower read from a candlelight vigil, “You can not divide us.” Another woman at the vigil had scrawled, “Not Afraid,” across her forehead.
The French government announced a ban on public gatherings in the aftermath of the killing, yet people took to the streets to protest in the face of the fear that the attacks were meant to inspire. Thousands gathered around Place de la République to mourn, light candles, toss flowers, and come together. Strangers wiping back tears were hugging others holding “Free Hugs” signs. Parisians of all ethnicities, religions and languages sang together, “Le Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, in the public square. A man who waved a French flag out of his fourth story window was met with loud cheers from the crowd gathered below.
Although Parisians are coming together in this tough time to show solidarity, the whole city still sits on edge while the last attacker remains at large. On Sunday evening at Place de la République, a loud noise that turned out to be a firecracker, triggered a panic among the mourning crowd. Hundreds started running in all directions, emptying the square in under two minutes. In all the commotion, one man slipped and fell on to the candles placed as tribute to the victims. Cafes in the area closed doors and patrons hid under tables. Police in military style gear were running through the plaza and setting up in front of the large monument in the middle, trigger fingers ready. The amazing part is that after it was determined to be a false alarm, hundreds filed back in to the square to continue their mourning and show that they were not afraid.
Artist Jean Jullien, who created the viral peace for Paris image consisting of the universal peace sign inscribed with the Eiffel tower had this to say about the aftermath of the attacks, per Time: “I can just say that in all this horror there’s something positive. That people are coming together in a sense of unity and peace.” There were no political party divisions or groups blaming one another in the square; just a sense that we are all one humanity. Sometimes the worst brings out the best.