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the long and difficult work of resilience of foreign victims


Among the 130 dead in the attacks of November 13, there are more than 30 different nationalities. The distance and the language barrier make each step a bit more complex for victims abroad. But on Friday, British and Irish survivors of the Bataclan will brave the obstacles and will be present at the bar to add their testimonies to the many French stories.

By attacking the Bataclan, the terrorists not only attacked French night owls, they attacked the whole world. Almost a quarter of those killed in the Paris concert hall were foreign nationals. Many had come to see the Californian rockers Eagles of Death Metal the night of the attack which left 90 people dead. Monday, the court identified 2,375 plaintiffs, including 215 foreign nationals and three French with dual nationality from 36 different countries, from Mexico to Cameroon, from Egypt to Japan. The British plaintiffs constitute the largest contingent with 27 civil parties, followed by Serbs, Americans, Moroccans, Spaniards, Austrians and Italians.

If the work of reconstruction is complicated for the French victims, it is even more so for the foreign victims. In addition to physical pain and psychological trauma, there is the language barrier, red tape and isolation. Some survivors returned home days or even hours after the attacks. A distance experienced as a “double penalty” for some. Attending the trial in Paris is far from easy and testifying before a foreign court is often a challenge.

Foreign tributes near the Bataclan concert hall for the victims of the terrorist attacks of November 13 in Paris. © Joël Saget, AFP

Be present to understand

But getting the questions answered is priceless. Michael O’Connor is one of those victims who want to travel to Paris to testify at the trial. Friday, this Briton who was 30 years old at the time of the facts will therefore appear before the Paris court and will tell the story of these two hours which have cast “an opaque shadow over the rest of his life”. At the time, the young thirty-something worked as a chef in Lyon. He and his girlfriend had decided to spend “a romantic weekend in Paris,” he told France 24 from Newcastle. His romantic evening, he will spend it like others pretending to be dead lying on the ground, without really understanding the orders of the terrorists, nor those of the police who came to deliver them. Subsequently, Michael O’Connor developed sleep disorders and post-traumatic stress that forced him to rush his return to England. While he got away with just a few bumps and bruises, the invisible wounds remain just as deep and crippling. The absence of wounds to heal on the body almost ended up sometimes making him doubt the attack. His suffering also prevents him from resuming his job in the restaurant business.

By going to trial, Michael O’Connor hopes to better understand the facts and gain peace of mind. By testifying at the bar, he also intends to take an active part. “I don’t want to stand up and tell the same story that has been told a hundred times by other people. But speaking with other survivors, I realized that details that were insignificant to some could be precious to others. “, explains the Briton in a soft accent from the north of England. “It could be something I saw in a hallway, a smell, a sound, or the time the lights came on, things like that. it helped me. […] Because after six years, your memory can play tricks on you and it is good to see clearly. “

“Close a chapter after that”

“For people who live far from Paris, abroad or in other cities in France, the risk is perhaps to feel a little more alone in the face of all this”, notes Olivier Laplaud, survivor of the Bataclan and vice-president of the Life for Paris association, a support group whose English name was precisely chosen to let foreigners know that they were welcome. “We also see it in the discussion groups on our private Facebook pages. We feel that foreigners have a real need to come to Paris to be part of the trial and ultimately to be an actor. To be as close as possible to the action. . Their presence will certainly facilitate their reconstruction. And I do hope that they will find answers and that they can close a chapter behind that. ”

This is why Michael O’Connor is planning at least three trips to Paris: one to testify on October 15 at the trial, another to attend the commemorations in November and a new one in January. “Fortunately, I work for the NHS [le service national de santé britannique, NDLR], they were very understanding. They gave me some free time, which is really good, but I imagine that is not necessarily the case in other professions. ”

Leaving your job or your children temporarily can be complicated, tiring and expensive. On this last point, the Paris Court of Appeal provides for a long list of indemnities to cover the costs of appearance (meals, accommodation, travel, public transport and parking). There is also compensation for each day spent in court as well as some compensation related to lost wages. State aid can be supplemented by the active solidarity of members of victim assistance associations. At Life for Paris, as in other associations, “there is a desire to help each other”, emphasizes Olivier Laplaud. “For annual commemorations, for example, it’s not uncommon for people to say, ‘I don’t really have the money to come to Paris for two days. Could someone lend me their sofa?’ And it works out, really naturally. ”

Radio silence

For those who cannot travel, it is also not easy to follow the trial from a distance. Especially when the webradio – which broadcasts each of the audiences – does not work abroad. The device promised by the judicial authorities is currently only available in mainland France for cybersecurity reasons. The French Ministry of Justice says it is working on a solution, but for now, nothing has changed. “A hard blow”, for Michael O’Connor who would have “liked to follow the trial a little more closely”. The Briton can still count on his French law firm which sends hearing reports written in English to all English-speaking plaintiffs by email. It can also rely on the victim assistance association “Life For Paris” which helps in this direction. As a last resort, there is always “Google Translate” to translate press articles.

And what about the difficulties in preparing your testimony with a law firm based in Paris from abroad? Kept at a distance from his legal advisers for the duration of the pandemic, Michael O’Connor had to carry out all the exchanges with his lawyer by interposed screen. Fortunately, his Parisian firm is familiar with this kind of exercise. The family firm of Thomas Ricard’s lawyer also represents Michael O’Connor as well as 20 other British and Irish plaintiffs, all victims of the Bataclan attack based abroad. “We are historically attached to the UK because my grandfather who founded the company participated in the D-Day landings with the British. And then I worked in London for about seven years,” Thomas Ricard told France 24.

Thomas Ricard considers that a large part of the role of the lawyer generally consists in helping clients throughout their grieving process. But for foreign customers, it is just as necessary to guide them through the French victim compensation system – a process made even more complicated for foreign victims and the disruptions linked to the Covid-19 epidemic. And then we must also explain to foreigners how a French investigation works. In France, in fact, complainants are encouraged to be proactive during the investigation, to transmit the questions they wish. It is only after the investigation is completed that the trial begins. A French trial is also different from a British trial in many ways. “No big wigs, no witness stands or that sort of thing,” jokes Michael O’Connor. But in the context of terrorism cases, for example, the verdict is rendered by a jury made up of professional judges and not by a popular jury.

As such, the English Zoe Alexander, who lost her brother Nick at the Bataclan, also wishes to congratulate the French justice for allowing so many people to express themselves. “The length of the trial is staggering, but I think it is very important to allow each victim to be heard or to honor the memory of the deceased,” she assures France 24 from the north-west of London. Leaving this space for survivors and the families of the victims is really important in the healing process. “Zoe Alexander chose to testify on behalf of Nick’s family” to be her voice in this process “and” to speak her name in the room. hearing before the terrorists “, although she and her family had little thought of the attackers after that night. Instead, they preferred to refocus on her memory by creating the” Nick Alexander Memorial Trust ” , a charity that raises funds to provide musical material to those in need, often through concerts. A way “to regain control over the attackers,” explains the English sister. To those who thought they had decided the end of Nick’s story, we say to them, ‘no, it is we who will decide how it will end’ “, she assures determined not to crack so as not to let the terrorists feast on his grief.

Zoe Alexander can also count on the help of his compatriots. In the United Kingdom, “we have a great community of English survivors and we are in regular contact. But as we are all in the four corners of the country, the health crisis has limited exchanges to Messenger and WhatsApp messaging”, abounds. -she. We are always there to support each other, but nothing replaces the face-to-face in these situations. “For all these reasons, Zoe Alexander will also be present Friday at the courthouse in Paris to listen to Michael O’Connor and the other British survivors. And as every time she sees them, she will share with them new bursts of laughter. “It’s amazing how little anger there is in this community. It can go up and down, but we are not angry people. “Perhaps the foreigners leaving Paris can put the attacks behind them. That would be the ultimate victory.

A text translated from the original into English by Aude Mazoué.