By Pierre Tran
Paris. Can you remember where you were on Friday 13 November 2015 is the big question, following the opening of a criminal trial for what has become known as the Bataclan attack.
The court hearing, which opened Sept. 8,2021 has heard survivors, police, intelligence officers, and political leaders give testimony on that night when assailants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State killed 130 people and wounded 400 in the French capital six years ago.
Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of that cell of extremists armed with AK 47 assault rifles and suicide bomb vests, is on trial for murder. Nineteen other suspects are charged with lesser offences for helping the attack team. The latter include six being tried in absentia, some of whom are thought to be dead.
There have been other killings by Islamist extremists but the sheer scale of that attack has marked that date in November as a date of mourning. The authorities spent €8 million ($9 million) to fashion a special room for the hearings held at court rooms of the Palais de Justice, cordoned off for high security.
A high-profile, far-right political commentator, Eric Zemmour, who may or may not stand as candidate in the presidential election in April, has used the closely followed trial to stir up public controversy on the vexed issue of immigration. Zemmour, standing in front of the Bataclan concert hall, said Nov. 13 the then president François Hollande failed to stem the flow of migrants into France and was to blame for the deadly attacks. Those assailants had French nationality.
Zemmour has stoked public feeling against the Moslem community in France, including calling for the compulsory use of European names for baptism and banning foreign names such as Mohammed for the child’s first name, while allowing their use as middle names.
“They knew and they did nothing,” Zemmour said in his attack on Hollande, who had given testimony Nov. 10 in the court hearing, the first time a former French head of state has been called as witness to a trial. “The authorities knew of the danger and they preferred French people die rather than stop the ‘migrants’ from coming into France,” he said. “François Hollande didn’t protect the French and he took an absolutely criminal decision, leaving the borders open.”
Zemmour, who has attracted media coverage in his remarks against migrants, has recently seen a drop in public opinion polls. Previously, Zemmour had enjoyed a rise in the polls, eroding support for Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, a rebranded far-right political party previously known as National Front.
Hollande rejected Zemmour’s remarks and called on the former journalist to show some “dignity” to the victims of the Nov. 13 attack. “I took decisions, the sense of those decisions was to assure the security and protection of our citizens, to fight against Islamist terrorism and to watch over the unity of the country,” Hollande said, while denouncing the nationalist polemics being used to split the nation.
A family association of victims of the attack also rejected the remarks of Zemmour. Zemmour was using immigration as a political issue, a senior executive at an arms company said, but that topic will decline as the election date draws nearer, when other concerns such as employment will rise in the campaign debate.
“All the political parties agreed not to politicize the Bataclan,” said Gilles Dorronsoro, political science professor at Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne university. “Zemmour broke that.”
The far-right commentator was promoting the idea of the “great replacement,” he said, a “neo-Nazi” idea assumed by the French far right after the second world war and which has since gained political ground.
A French writer, Renaud Camus, has popularized the racist nationalist idea of people from North Africa and the Middle East, mostly Muslim, taking over France from white Europeans, with his 2011 book titled The Great Replacement, television channel France 24 has reported.
That notion of cultural purity dates back to 1900, when the French father of nationalism, Maurice Barrès, wrote of the concept of a foreign population taking over, leading to the “ruin of our homeland.” That appealed to the idea of racial purity for the Nazi party in Germany, which the French far right adapted to cultural purity after the second world war, leading to a spread of the idea of great replacement around the world.
Zemmour sought to tap into that nationalist fear by using the Bataclan killings in his criticism of Hollande, Dorronsoro said. Recent opinion polls show he has lost ground, with Marine Le Pen regaining in the polls.
It remains to be seen whether Zemmour will declare his running for the presidency, but commentators note the center right has moved toward seeking votes from the far right. Michel Barnier, a former commissioner on the European Commission, seeks to run as candidate for the center-right party The Republicans, and says he would suspend immigration if he were elected as president of France.
The trial of the Bataclan attack is expected to run to May, with the voters going to the polls in April.
Six years ago, the attackers claiming allegiance to the Islamic State used guns and suicide bomb vests to kill 130 people, including 90 concert goers at the Bataclan, where the American rock band Eagles of Death Metal was playing. The coordinated assault included the Stade de France football stadium just outside the capital, when Hollande was among the spectators watching a friendly match of France playing against Germany. The then head of state was evacuated at the sound of the first suicide vest bomb going off outside the stadium.
There were people enjoying a sociable Friday night at cafés and restaurants, until the militants swept in with drive-by shootings and detonated their vest bombs. The Islamic State was reported to have ordered the attack in response to Hollande ordering French air strikes against the IS in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015.
The then U.S. president Barack Obama made his first stop at the Bataclan, to lay down a white rose in mourning, when he flew Nov. 30 2015 into Paris for the United Nations COP 21 conference on climate change. Hollande accompanied the then American head of state.