Area of bonhomie is shaken again

Last Updated 16 November 2015, 19:36 IST

The massacre Friday night by militants wielding assault rifles provoked an eerie and disturbing sense of familiarity for all of France. But that feeling was even more profound for one quickly gentrifying, multicultural neighbourhood of Paris known for its “bourgeois bonhomie” – the 11th Arrondissement.

At least five of the attacks took place here, some just blocks from where the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was hit in January. The concentration of deaths in a single neighbourhood, comparable in scale and sensibility to the East Village of Manhattan in New York City, has left this tightly knit corner of Paris, filled with young families and friends, in shock and mourning, like the rest of the nation.

But residents here have also been left to weigh a sad, inevitable and increasingly personal question: Why us? “Last January, they attacked Charlie Hebdo to attack freedom of expression. Then they attacked a kosher supermarket to target the Jews,” said Benjamin Hadida, 27, who works in biotechnology, as he sat with friends at the Charonne Cafe, on the same street where 19 people were cornered and killed at a bar, La Belle Équipe.

“This time they wanted to attack people absent-mindedly having fun,” Hadida said. “This is a place where young people come on a Friday night to be free. It’s an attack on the joy of life.”

Other sites attacked in the neighbourhood included the Cafe Bonne Bière, where at least five people died; the Comptoir Voltaire, where a suicide bomber struck; and the storied Bataclan concert hall, where gunmen killed 89 people at a rock concert.
The cluster of attacks, while shattering the fragile sense of security that was being slowly rebuilt since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, has also fortified the neighbourhood’s spirit of defiance.

Residents described the assaults as a deliberate desecration of a decidedly Parisian way of life, embodied in the area’s bespoke leather boot shops, avant-garde galleries, record stores, upmarket restaurants, cafes and synagogues.

“I think they targeted here again because it is a busy area where people go with their friends,” said Mai Hua, a blogger and film director who called the neighbourhood her second home. “There is an innocence about this neighbourhood,” she added, “and the
terrorists wanted to show that nearly a year after Charlie Hebdo, the French shouldn’t feel safe.”

The neighbourhood is dominated by students and professionals, many of them cosmopolitan and left-leaning. But if it has increasingly turned “bobo” – or bourgeois bohemian – it remains so with an edge, a little grittier and shabbier, less moneyed and touristy than other parts of town.

“This is very much a mixed neighbourhood,” Frank Mokrycki, a bartender at La Fontaine, a dimly lit bar on the street. “It used to be poor, and there were many artisan workshops and factories. But now you have designer labels and fashion retailers. You have people from all walks of life. They struck at the heart of Paris,” he added, meaning not geographically, but in spirit.

It is a neighbourhood, too, whose evolution from immigrant entrepôt to bohemian chic has been punctuated by calamity and racial tension before. Rue de Charonne, a main artery, was the site of two previous tragedies, including the 1961 police massacre of dozens of Algerians demonstrating for Algeria’s independence from France.

In the view of one resident, Doriane Giuili, a leading cultural figure in the neighbourhood, both the Charlie Hebdo and Friday attacks partly reflected a socio-economic clash between the radicals of the banlieues, or Paris’ impoverished suburbs, and middle-class bourgeoisie personified by the freewheeling spirit of the 11th Arrondissement.

Giuili, the daughter of Tunisian immigrants, noted that when she was growing up here in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was populated largely by immigrant families, many from Muslim backgrounds who had come from North Africa to find work during post-war industrialisation.

Today, like the neighbourhood itself, Giuili embodies the neighbourhood’s playfully rebellious spirit. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, she and friends from the area – artists, bloggers, filmmakers – created a new cultural magazine called Les Branchés, a term denoting the hip, the trendy, the plugged in.

The name itself, she noted, was a self-mocking title meant to convey that the neighbourhood would never cave in to politically correct forces or to those who want to fight against freedom with Kalashnikovs and bombs.

Describing it as a neighbourhood with a strong immigrant and working-class influence, she said it had become increasingly gentrified in recent years, with cheap beer giving way to 5-euro glasses of wine, and kebab shops supplanted by upmarket restaurants.

Symbolic resonance

Giuili said the targeting of the Bataclan concert hall, where three heavily armed men fired indiscriminately at the audience, reflected a deadly clash of values. “The Islamic State said they attacked the Bataclan because of its debauchery,” she said. “It is a place of iconic and historic meaning in Paris, a place that has always been at the centre of youth culture, of counterculture and rock ’n’ roll.”

“When they chose that neighbourhood,” she added, “they wanted to attack an area that is a place of bourgeois bonhomie, of liberalism and liberty.”

The area has deep symbolic resonance, encompassing the Place de la République, which sits on the crossroads of Paris’ 3rd, 10th and 11th Arrondissements. Its imposing bronze statue shows Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, on a majestic pedestal, holding an olive branch in her right hand and a tablet engraved with “Human Rights” in the left.

That spirit of freedom prevailed this weekend, amid a heavy air of loss and sadness. On Saturday evening, residents and people from across the city lit candles and laid flowers in front of La Belle Équipe, where diners were gunned down on an outdoor terrace. The mood was somber, but also marked by resolve.

Hadida and a group of friends made a point of sitting at an outdoor terrace on the same street, defiantly nursing their beers. “We decided to come here on purpose to show that we are not afraid, that we will not be cowed by terrorists,” he said.

They would continue to make their weekly pilgrimage to the neighbourhood and their favourite street, he said, regardless of what had happened. “The terrorists,” he said, “will not win.”

(Published 16 November 2015, 19:36 IST)

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