The Attacks in Carcassonne and Trèbes

This blog post is a bit different from usual. The topic is not properly about our fun travels or amusing experiences in France. It is about what we experienced on the day of the gunman attack in Carcassonne and Trèbes, and in the days following. All the events of that day took place within a few miles of where we live. We, personally, are just fine. But we find ourselves within only one or two degrees of separation from what happened. Since this also is part of our life in France, I wanted to share some of what we experienced. If this topic is not one you want to dig into, no problem! More travel posts are on their way shortly.
I’ve organized these thoughts in these sections:
  1. Outline of the sequence of events on Friday, 23 March, from newspapers. You may have read about these details already, but I wanted to place the events in their locations, which connect with our own experiences that day.
  2. Some of our experiences during the day of Friday, 23 March and after.
  3. Discussions with French friends about what happened.
1.  Outline of the sequence of events on Friday, 23 March, from newspapers:
The gunman was a 25-year-old naturalized French man who had come to France from Morocco with his family when he was a child. He lived in a difficult neighborhood in Carcassonne, just below La Cité (the medieval walled city for which Carcassonne is now famous). He had a history of small crimes related to drugs and firearm possession. He was known to the police, and was on the S List, which is the list of people whom the authorities think have potential to be radicalized and may become violent (S is for “sûreté de l’état”). He had been seen earlier in the morning of the attacks dropping off his younger sister at her school.
The first incident was his stealing a car at gunpoint, gravely wounding the driver and killing the passenger. This occurred in an open parking area between La Cité and the ring road. The gunman left the two bodies in the brush next to the parking lot. Once the bodies were found, the police proceeded to evacuate La Cité of tourists and residents. At that time, the police did not know if there were multiple assailants.
Driving from where he stole the car, he by chance came upon a group of riot police who were out for a run. He stopped the car, jumped out, and shot at them, seriously wounding some of them. We have been told that a goal of those recently radicalized is to target police and public authorities.
He got back in the car, and drove to the supermarket, a Super U, in Trèbes, which is a large village just to the east of Carcassonne. Trèbes lies on the opposite side of Carcassonne from where we live. He shot people in the Super U, killing a customer and the butcher. He held customers and staff hostage. The police arrived quickly, starting the negotiations with the gunman. Over the course of a couple of hours, they were successful in getting the gunman to release all but one hostage, a cashier. The senior gendarme, Arnaud Beltrame, convinced the gunman to trade the remaining hostage for himself. After some more time, the gunman shot the gendarme in the legs and feet, and then lunged forward, cutting him across the neck with a knife. Police stormed the supermarket and shot the gunman dead. Arnaud Beltrame died of his wounds that night.
2.  Some of our experiences during the day of Friday, 23 March and after.
We were sitting in a restaurant at lunch. At about 1:45, a friend in Japan emailed us, “Are you OK?” Only then did we look online to learn that a terrorist attack was in progress in Carcassonne and Trèbes.
During that afternoon, we did some errands as we had planned. Between our stop at a countryside plant nursery to the south of Carcassonne, and our stop at Carrefour for groceries to the north of the town, we drove along the highway that encircles Carcassonne, passing through intersections with the roads that lead east to Trèbes. Multiple policeman were standing at each intersection. We learned later that they were preventing people from driving to Trèbes.
Friday afternoonis typically when our house cleaner comes to the house for three hours in the afternoon. Our house cleaner is Moroccan; she grew up in Morocco, and we understand she,  her sister and their husbands came to France as young adults. She lives with her husband and children in Trèbes. We returned home before she had left for the day. We were a bit surprised that she was there, having thought that, given what has happening in Trèbes, she would be in Trèbes. We found her outwardly cheery as she usually is. When I asked her about what she knew about what was going on, she replied that: She first heard of the attacks while she was working elsewhere in Carcassonne. She said that her house is almost next to the supermarket, Super U, in which the gunman was holding people hostage, and that her kids’ school is just to the other side of the Super U. She had tried to get back to Trèbes, but the police wouldn’t let her go there, even with her kids and family in Trèbes. Her husband was in Trèbes, so she was relieved that he was able to take care of the children. She said that the day was “stressful.” Understatement.
The next morning, Saturday, we as usual drove into the center of Carcassonne for the weekly large produce market in Place Carnot. Our route took us past the Carcassonne gendarmerie where the gendarme Arnaud Beltrame was stationed. Already there were bouquets of flowers piling up against the front gate, and news photographers had their cameras and tripods set up across the street. In the days since the attack, the flowers have piled up almost all the way to the street.
3.  Discussions with French friends about what happened:
Two of our close friends live and work in La Cité. They were in their storefront office on Friday. The police had quickly evacuated the tourists from La Cité. But somehow, they forgot to contact our friends; they also overlooked the youth hostel next door. Our friend’s storefront faces a side street, which can be quiet even in the busiest of times. Nonetheless, they realized that something was not ordinary. They came out into the main walking street, and they found an empty Cité. There were a few police guarding the main gate of La Cité, but none at the other two gates.
Mike and I asked our friends what they thought of the situation. They said that, while the police reaction was swift, it was evidently uneven. They felt that they, and many of their fellow Cité residents, are ready to protect themselves the next time something happens. We asked gently if they meant that we wanted to seek out potential terrorists. They replied emphatically not; they will, however, be ready to defend themselves and not wait passively for the autorities if there are future active attackers. This position is notable in France, based on something that my AVF French teacher has said (more about her reactions below). She has commented more than once, with incomprehension, about the gun situation in the US. She noted that, in France, private citizens do not have the right to shoot at an assailant. In the past, when people have shot an intruder, the shooter has been arrested and charged. She said that it is the responsibility of the state, of the police and authorities, to resist offenders. Our friends’ shift of position, to commit to defend themselves, is a notable change.
We all concurred, however, that we continue to live our lives normally. Even though this attack happened in our town, we can’t know what will happen when.
Once a week, I attend a French conversation and writing class which is offered by the AVF. (Accueil des Villes Françaises, a volunteer organization with activities for people who have newly moved to a Carcassonne; there are AVF branches throughout France.) On the Tuesday after the attacks, for my writing and grammar class, I was the only student. The class leader is a retired school teacher, who taught history I think, and who is in her early 70s. She has lived in Carcassonne her entire life. She suggested that we just talk, rather than have a structured class. While it was technically a conversation, it was she who spoke for most of the hour. She had a point of view that I found particularly interesting. She lamented that through the recent years of terrorist attacks in France, French people have only been able to react, softly passively. They participate in candlelight vigils, place flowers at attack sites, and have moments of silence. But they feel powerless. Then this gendarme, against typical protocol, traded himself for a civilian hostage, and ultimately gave his life. He sacrificed his own life for a fellow-citizen and for France. He acted. My teacher felt and hoped that perhaps the heroic actions of this gendarme would help transform something in France. They would symbolize movement from passivity and reaction, to action to face problems and stagnation in the country. She wasn’t calling for vigilantism against suspected terrorists. She was foreseeing more civic engagement in addressing the sources of terroristic radicalization. She was foreseeing a shift in political will to make tough changes in lagging parts of public France, such as the rail workers, Air France employees, and union actions. These are all current areas of strikes and conflict between unions, the national government, and French (and foreign!) customers.
A few days later, the national commemoration service for Colonel Beltrame was held in Paris at the Invalides. (The Invalides is a significant monument begun in the 17th century. It is a national symbol of the Republic and its military. It includes the Dôme des Invalides, the large church which contains the remains of many of France’s notable war heroes, including Napoleon Bonaparte.) President Macron gave the eulogy. Soon after the ceremony, my French teacher sent me an impassioned email. Here is my translation:
A turning point in our history was written today.
I hope that you wanted to and could follow the ceremony at the Invalides.
You saw the majesty and beauty of Paris and the Invalides (built by Louis XIV and then Napoleon).
You saw the formal attire, the dignity, the sternness, the elegance of all the participants; the perfection of the protocol and military mouvements; the dignity of the Chief of State.
You couldn’t have known that, for the first time for a military funeral, regular citizens were invited, including school children.
You heard a speech that is a model of written literature and of oratory; you will read it again.
Finally, you witnessed the making of a hero. In the space of three days, all the leaders, politicians, journalists, writers, the President, have changed the discourse.
It is now about heroes who have entered in active resistance against extremist Islam.
There have been others who have fought against terrorists, but they have not died.
To become a national hero, a model for children, to enter into the “national story,” it is necessary to have “given one’s life.”
But it is also necessary to remember that it is in the times when society is weak and in danger, like during the time of Joan of Arc or the Second World War, that we need to create heroes for ourselves.
In his eulogy, Macron effectively made connections to Joan of Arc and to the code of the chevaliers (it seems to me).
I was particularly struck, today, by the presence, which is new, of the school children.
Have a good day!

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