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Terror in Europe

For The French, Why It's Different This Time

Paris has been brutally attacked by Islamist terrorists two times in the past 10 months. Will Friday's attack wind up changing the way the French live their lives?

Mourners near Paris' Bataclan concert venue on Nov. 15
Mourners near Paris' Bataclan concert venue on Nov. 15
Cynthia Martens

PARIS — France, land of pens. At least, it seemed that way when I came back home from my first day of French elementary school and presented my parents with a very precise list of the supplies I was expected to have each day in class. One stylo plume (fountain pen), with blue (and only blue!) ink cartridges. Four ballpoint pens: one red, one green, one black, and one blue — certainly not one of those clicking multi-color pens.

So France loves pens. This of course is a country where the written word (not to mention, colorful bande dessinée) is treasured, as the most direct and diffused forms of freedom of expression. When terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in January, it was an assault on individual cartoonists, but also on cherished national beliefs that are passed on from the first day of school.

Still, as traumatizing as that attack was, it felt more remote to the average citizen than the horrific events of Friday, when armed gunmen and suicide bombers killed at least 129 people who were sitting at cafés, listening to a concert and watching a football match between France and Germany at the Stade de France.

"Well," people could console themselves after January's tragic events. "I'm not drawing offensive cartoons, I don't shop at a kosher supermarket. It couldn't happen to me." It didn't feel all that convincing, but it was enough to help regain a sense of normalcy rather quickly.

But as news of Friday's attacks unfolded, and friends and relatives began frantically calling and texting one another, people in Paris (and across France) quickly realized that this time around, the stakes were even higher than in January. When anyone could have been a victim, everyone feels like one. That realization of your own vulnerability is a quietly devastating sensation.

The testimony of those who survived offered the most immediate, and chilling, proof of the nature of these attacks. "There were at least five dead people around me, others in the street, blood everywhere," Mathieu, 35, told Agence France Presse after surviving the shooting in front of a pizzeria in rue de la Fontaine au Roi. "I was very lucky."

Thomas, a young man who escaped unharmed from the Bataclan concert venue, told the French Metro newspaper: "You think this only happens to other people."

Marching in solidarity for the targets chosen 10 months ago was a way to stand up for the ideals of the French Republic. In the cross hairs this time were simply French people, in an operation to kill as many of them as possible.

In a series of cartoons published on his Instagram account, a friend and colleague of some of the Charlie Hebdo victims, Joann Sfar celebrated the famous French joie de vivre and illustrated the Parisian city motto, fluctuat nec mergitur, Latin for: "it is tossed by the waves but does not sink." (The Independenthas translated the series into English). Sfar declared that terrorists' cult of death is bound to be defeated by the French faith in the salvation of joy, music, drunkeness and kissing for the whole world to see.

"Instead of dividing us, you have reminded us how precious this all is, our way of life"

France is a country that has staunchly defended its homegrown cinema, while lining up for Hollywood blockbusters. It's admired worldwide for its devotion to culture and the arts; for its wine and cheese; for its sense of style. But also for its never-above-bawdy jokes and slapstick humor. France is imperfect, and full of contradictions: eager to defend its identity and yet able to blend in a medley of international influences, creating a national spirit that is both unique and lasting.

The victims in Friday's attacks were a cross-section of the capital: men and women, French and foreign, of various ages and religious leanings. One of them was Asta Diakite, cousin of Lassana Diarra, a French soccer player of Malian origins. The grieving athlete posted a tribute to her on his Twitter account, which spoke for all the good people of France.

"In this climate of terror, it is important for all of us, as representatives of our country and its diversity, to speak up and stay united in the face of a horror that knows no color, no religion," he wrote.

I hope that France will continue to fight for both its diversity and its singular way of life, stylo plume and all.

*Cynthia Martens is an American journalist who recently moved back to Paris, where she lived many years as a child.

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