Deep inside Paris’s historic law courts on the bank of the River Seine, builders were putting the finishing touches to an extraordinary architectural structure described as a cross between a high-security bunker and modern church.
Its sleek pale wood and white lighting were chosen by the French justice ministry to create “a sense of calm” in contrast to the horrific events which will soon be examined there. This temporary structure will from next week host the biggest criminal trial ever held in France, when 20 men are accused of planning, aiding and carrying out the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks on a stadium, bars and restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall.
The trial, which will last nine months and feature witnesses including the former president François Hollande, is held as a crucial step in addressing the personal and national trauma of the coordinated attacks that killed 130 people and injured more than 490. But it is unclear whether the key accused will break their silence on the massacre described by Hollande as an “act of war”.
The attacks, claimed by Islamic State, began around 9pm on a Friday night, 13 November 2015, when a suicide bomber blew himself up after failing to get into the Stade de France. Hollande was among 80,000 people at the stadium watching a France-Germany football match. This bombing was followed by drive-by shootings and suicide bombings at cafes and restaurants in Paris, and an attack at the Bataclan during a rock concert by Eagles of Death Metal where 90 people were killed.
The key figure on trial is Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the last survivor from the cell of 10 men who struck the city, most killing themselves or killed by police.
Abdeslam, 31, a Brussels-born French citizen, is alleged to have been central to the vast logistics operation that saw the jihadists return to Europe from Syria, via the migrant route. He is believed to have escorted the three bombers who blew themselves up at the Stade de France. He is suspected of perhaps planning to carry out his own suicide attack in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, and backing out. His brother blew himself up and died at a Paris bar during the attacks. Abdeslam hid south of Paris after the attacks and called contacts in Brussels to collect him by car at 5.30am. After a manhunt, he was arrested four months later at a Brussels flat. Days after his arrest, suicide bombers alleged to be part of the same cell struck at Brussels airport and the metro, killing 32 and injuring 270.
Also on trial in Paris will be Mohamed Abrini, 36, Abdeslam’s childhood friend, believed to have travelled to the Paris region with the attackers, who was later captured on CCTV with the two Brussels airport bombers.
In total, 20 suspects are accused of providing various planning and logistical support. Six will be tried in their absence: five are presumed dead in Iraq or Syria and one is in prison in Turkey.
Arthur Dénouveaux, the president of the survivors’ group Life for Paris, was a rock fan watching the Bataclan gig when attackers burst in opening fire. He managed to escape and led the band members running through Paris streets, handing them €50 and putting them in a taxi. “I was just completely outside myself that night,” he said.
Dénouveaux will speak in court, as part of the close-knit community of Bataclan survivors. “The first layer of what we have to say is about the horror of terrorism, the trauma, how much it wrecks a life and those of people around you. Second, the fact we can speak out is testament that terrorism is a dead-end. It doesn’t work. It ruins lives and doesn’t help any real political project. It’s just absolute nihilism, however you disguise it. Finally, if we’re able to carry all these messages, that itself proves that resilience exists.”
He said survivors wanted an end to the myths that had grown up around the attack, to establish facts and not see the events co-opted for politics or prejudice. “To me the facts are: I was in the Bataclan and I got shot at. But in France it has also become an issue about migrants and the fact that terrorists can come into the country with migrants. It has become a topic of foreign policy when Donald Trump mentioned the Bataclan at one of his events, it has become an issue about Islam in France. It has outgrown the facts … everything is exaggerated about 13 November, because it’s such an extreme event.”
Michael O’Connor, a British chef, is among many foreign survivors returning to Paris to speak in court. He said: “This presents our best opportunity to perhaps get some closure.” There were questions on a “global scale of why and how it happened” that he would like to understand better, but also more personal questions about the events themselves. “When I came out of the Bataclan I was very confused even about how long I was inside there for,” he said.
Thomas Ricard, a lawyer for 21 Bataclan survivors from the UK and Ireland, said foreign survivors faced specific challenges. “Some left Paris the next morning. If at 6am, you’re on a plane or train home to a foreign city, there’s a distance from Paris’s collective grieving process. For those living far away there was a sense of: was it real? Did it happen? That disconnect can have an impact on coming to terms with the attacks. Some people might not have tangible physical injuries, but they saw monstrous scenes of war. The trauma and grief process is very real.”
Matthieu Chirez, who will represent British and Irish survivors in court, said: “Among survivors, there is a search for the truth. There is the collective, long-term work of recovery from suffering and grief. But there is also a real lucidity that we might not get all the answers at this trial.”
The trial, after a five-year investigation, is not mandated to make findings on whether or not there were security or intelligence failings by the French state.
Patricia Correia, whose daughter Précilia and her partner were killed at the Bataclan, is one of the co-founders of the group 13onze15 for families and survivors. She said: “This trial is necessary not just for justice, but also to preserve the memory of what happened. It needs to be written down – carved in stone almost – and transmitted to future generations.”