SHAFAQNA – Ordinary citizens showed their support by giving blood at hospitals, offering shelter to people who had been displaced and by putting up rallying signs across the city. But others fear the atrocities will be exploited by rightwing groups.
The shutters were down in shops and businesses across central Paris. At those restaurants and cafes which did open to sparse groups of customers, there was an eerie solemnity. Muted by shock and sadness, the French capital woke to the reality of 128 people dead and the challenge of how to respond to the deadliest attack on France since the second world war.
Sirens wailed in half-empty streets as doctors battled to save the most critical cases among more than 200 injured and put out an urgent call for donations of blood and organs.
The scale of the carnage also meant that many people were still frantically seeking news of missing loved ones hours after the attacks ended and all eight gunmen and suicide bombers were dead. One social media post read: “Waleed is missing. We last contacted him at the match. Please share & contact me if u have any info. #rechercheParis”. Another said: “I’ve been looking for my cousin since last night … He’s 25 and I’m 75. He’s called Younes. #rechercheParis.”
The pleas illustrated poignantly how the attackers cut a swath through all of Paris society, without respect for age, race, religion or nationality.
Among France’s Muslims there was both mourning and worry that the acts of fanatics would be seen as representative of their religion. After a night of carnage and chaos at six spots across the city’s heart, President François Hollande declared a state of emergency and said the attacks were an “act of war” perpetrated by Islamic State.
The president urged people to stay indoors. Not everyone heeded his call, however. At the Georges Pompidou hospital, for example, a long queue of people snaked around the vast foyer. “They are waiting to give blood,” said Dr Philippe Juvin, head of emergency services at the hospital. “They have just come without being asked, spontaneously. They face a three-hour wait, so we will ask some of them who can come back tomorrow to do so.”
One donor, 29-year-old William Haddad, who lives near Le Carillon bistro, where 14 people were gunned down on Friday, said: “I am in good shape and so I can give blood. It’s the least I can do to help. We have to help, to have this sense of belonging.”
For his part, Juvin looked exhausted, having worked throughout the night, grabbing two hours’ sleep after dawn still wearing his creased white coat. On Friday night the hospital went into “Plan White”, he said. “It was very rapid, a call, the ambulances, then we had 50 to 60 people with gunshot wounds arriving. I have never experienced anything like it, but we are coping. We have been training for something like this. The response was astonishing. Doctors from all over this area turned up to offer help.
“We had two doctors from Brittany who arrived in the night. The nurses who had been on day duty came back, and even ex-students of the teaching hospital turned up. The operating theatres have been doing back-to-back operations all night and still are today. We sent the walking wounded home and told them to come back today or tomorrow but we used every bed we had: in geriatrics, in [the] children’s [department]. If there was a bed, we used it. This is an exceptional situation but we are an exceptional people. I am very proud of my team.”
In reception, a woman was sobbing, having heard that her boyfriend had suffered devastating abdominal injuries. “My love. Why did this happen?” she screamed, as her parents tried to wrap their arms round her. A nurse stood by in tears.
“We are very aware that many will be in trauma,” added Juvin. “We had a psychiatrist here last night and another will come later today. We have to treat both the physical and the psychological injuries.” On Saturday afternoon Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, announced that she had opened a psychological support group for Parisians in the 11th arrondissement.
The trauma was felt even by those not directly caught up in the attacks. Lucille Simon, 24, had to stay at a friend’s house because her apartment was near the Bataclan concert venue and was sealed off. “I am terrified. You don’t feel safe any more in Paris. I like living here. Even after Charlie Hebdo things returned to normal, but I’m starting to wonder maybe I should move. I’m frightened to go out in the street alone.”
The uneasy atmosphere in Paris was felt particularly keenly by young Muslims. One group gathered in a Tunisian-run cafe. They were mourning the dead, but also feared that their community would be blamed for Friday’s carnage. “I am worried some French people will think Islam did this, that all Muslims are terrorists,” said Kaber Bouchoucha, 24, who works in a market to support himself through his part-time studies in fine art and design. “Already people in France look at us badly. There already is racism and this will make it worse.”
Sofiane, a 30-year-old ambulance driver, has lived in France since he was eight years old and has a Christian wife. He feared the attacks would be exploited by racist groups. “There are plenty of French people who don’t discriminate, who see everyone just as humans. But there are some who understand nothing. I am well integrated, with lots of French friends, but I am worried about the impact on Muslims overall.”
As the horror of the attacks emerged, residents of eastern Paris used social media not just to listen to news and express emotion, but to offer help. The hashtag #PorteOuverte (open door) was quickly up and running on Twitter, with residents in the affected areas offering shelter to anyone who had been cleared from the streets and had nowhere to stay. Some just posted their addresses, while others asked Twitter users to contact them.