French citizens now understand that they, and not just Jews, are terror targets, a Parisian senior PR and political consultant said late Saturday, after a massive coordinated attack on nightlife in the capital left 129 people dead and hundreds more injured.
“It was an illusion; we lived in this illusion and now we are waking up — and it’s a nightmare,” said David Khalfa in a late Saturday night phone call from his Paris home.
A consequence of Friday’s attacks is that “now every French citizen understands the issue and will have to confront the threat and the changes it implies, notably and sadly on his way of life,” said Khalfa, who has daily interactions with the Jewish community leaders and French journalists and politicians.
In the fallout of January’s shocking Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris, followed by the murders in the kosher Hyper Cacher supermarket, the French government quickly secured all Jewish institutions, posting guards in full battle gear outside synagogues, Jewish schools and institutions. Indeed, the country’s Jews feel protected, although still threatened, said Khalfa.
The French public began to debate whether new security measures should be taken throughout the country, including the standard Israeli practices of guards posted at the entrance of schools, restaurants, shops, and places of public transport.
Khalfa said, however, that although there has been an ongoing military presence in the country’s big cities, almost nothing palpable was felt on a day-to-day basis after the million people solidarity march ended.
For the Jewish community, there was a different reaction. Khalfa said that since the Jews were the main targets of the first terrorist attacks and since most members of the Jewish community have family in Israel, they are more used to the seriousness and probable reality of ongoing terrorist attacks.
“The French Jews know that terror is an almost daily threat that the Israelis are facing and so they have a slightly different perception of what’s going on now. The Jews are more aware of the gravity and the level of the threat and what needs to be done to counter this threat,” he said.
Friday’s attacks are essentially different than what the country witnessed in January.
“This time it’s not only about symbolic targets,” said Khalfa, explaining that Charlie Hebdo was over free speech and the “Hyper Cacher attack was to tell the Jews they are not safe anywhere anymore, especially in France.”
“But now everyone is a target: It happened in coffee shops, in restaurants, in a concert hall, and I think it has changed the whole perspective of fighting terror,” he said.
There are some estimated 700 to 1,000 French citizens currently involved in the fighting alongside ISIS in the Middle East, said Khalfa. The return of this trained extremist fighting force is of upmost concern to France, which is already considered a target “due to counter-terrorism activities in north and central Africa as well as the perceived mistreatment of and discrimination against the Muslim minority in France itself,” Matthew Henman, head of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London, told AFP Saturday.
But for Khalfa after the January’s attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher, it was as if the country had decided that the terror had been an anomaly, a one-time blip.
In the internal domestic debate, it was held that they shouldn’t change the Parisian joie de vivre or infringe on proudly held values of liberte, egalite, and fraternite with increased security measures.
The August 21 Thalys train shooting, labeled by French police as an Islamist terrorist attack, raised the issue again, said Khalfa, but eventually it was decided that no guards should be posted in front of restaurants and there would be no screening passengers on public transportation. He feels like this was a foreseeable mistake and worries there won’t be more, worse attacks in the future.
‘Everybody was unarmed, everybody was a target’
For Khalfa, the recent attacks were personal: Several of his friends were in the audience at the once Jewish-owned Bataclan concert hall Friday night. While they were hiding alongside 20 other hostages — one of whom who bled to death — Khalfa was in telephone contact with one of his Jewish friends.
Afterwards he related to Khalfa the feeling of utter helplessness he experienced while hearing gun shots and cries for help, while watching blood seep out of the mounting bodies. Unlike in Israel or in the United States, in France personal weaponry is culturally shunned, said Khalfa. The crowd was powerless to fight back.
Khalfa’s friend described running upon corpses in the panicked chaos of his search for refuge.
“Besides being very scared, he felt that he wanted to shoot back, but he was unarmed. Everybody was unarmed, everybody was a target,” said Khalfa. “The main feeling, besides the nightmare he experienced, was that he felt like he was a very easy target.”