With about 1,800 plaintiffs, more than 300 lawyers, 20 defendants, 110 days of hearings and a giant courtroom specially built for the occasion, it’s what French media are dubbing “the trial of the century”.
On Wednesday, all eyes will be on Paris as proceedings over the November 13, 2015 terror attacks get underway.
But turning their backs on the trial will be Sylvie and Erick Pétard.
“This trial won’t bring back our daughters,” the couple based in the Loire region of France told Euronews.
The Pétards — in a book published last week — describe the “unbearable” loss of Marion, a 27-year old musicology student, and Anna, a 24-year old graphic designer, who were brutally shot and killed on the terrace of Le Carillon, a popular bar in northeastern Paris.
One hundred and thirty people lost their lives and 350 were wounded when three teams of jihadist suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the Stade de France stadium, bars and restaurants in central Paris and the Bataclan concert hall.
The attacks, which were France’s deadliest peacetime atrocity, were later claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State group.
In the dock, all eyes will be on French-Belgian Salah Abdeslam, who is alleged to be the only member of the commando still alive. The 19 others defendants are accused of providing various logistical support, with six of them tried in absentia.
About 300 survivors and relatives of the victims will testify at the trial, while many others — including the Pétards — have decided to stay away.
“We won’t follow the trial, we won’t attend it and we’re not expecting any explanations,” Sylvie Pétard told Euronews. “We’re rejecting anything that could further hurt us.”
But, for others, the trial will be a crucial step in their reconstruction.
“Everyone has their own expectations, but we know that this is an important milestone for our life after,” Arthur Dénouveaux, a survivor of the Bataclan concert hall attack and president of the Life for Paris group, told AFP.
Between indifference, anxieties and hopes for truth, Euronews explores what the victims of the attacks that traumatised France expect from this historical trial.
‘Healing will not come without answers’
Samia Maktouf, a lawyer who represents dozens of plaintiffs in the case, told Euronews the trial had been “awaited for six long years”.
She said her clients expected first and foremost “a better understanding of the events” that “cost their loved ones their lives and which fundamentally and irreparably disrupted their existence”.
“These people have been hit by what they held most dear,” Maktouf went on.”Their life will never be the same again.”
“So this trial is very much awaited because it might bring healing. But healing will not come without answers,” she said.
Yet, the plaintiffs are acutely aware they may not get the answers they seek.
For one thing, Abdeslam, the only suspected perpetrator still alive, has remained silent throughout the investigation.
When he went on trial in Brussels in 2018 over a shooting in the Belgian capital, he refused to answer any questions and told magistrates: “I’m not afraid of you nor of your allies. I place my trust in Allah.”
Abdeslam was a childhood friend of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the November 13 attacks. Abdeslam’s older brother, Brahim, died blowing himself up in the suicide attack at one of the Paris cafés in November 2015.
Salah Abdeslam was in possession of an explosive belt but he got rid of it on the night of the attacks for reasons that remain unknown, police say. They added it is unclear if he gave up on his terrorist project at the last minute or was stopped by a technical failure of the belt.
‘Preparing for silence’
“I have prepared the plaintiffs whom I represent to expect that most probably, Abdeslam and other defendants will not speak and will withdraw into silence,” Maktouf said.
“Silence is a defence strategy that has been chosen. And it is also an Islamist protocol that has been well established long before this trial by other preachers of hatred and violence.”
While the defendants’ silence will be an “obstacle”, Maktouf thinks “it won’t prevent a better understanding of the events which took place during these attacks”.
She insisted on the strength of the witnesses’ testimonies at the trial.
“Witnesses, experts but above all victims, will come one after each to testify. We have all seen since 2012 [the date of another major terror trial linked to the Toulouse school shootings] the power of their words, of their testimonies with dignity and courage.”
“And I would like to pay tribute to the investigating magistrates, whom, through their investigations, which lasted for six long years were able to make great strides despite Salah Abdeslam’s silence.”
Political context to loom large over trial
While the trial will focus on the criminal responsibilities of the defendants, the issue of state responsibilities and possible flaws in the response of French authorities will loom large, too.
Maktouf told Euronews the presence at the trial of France’s top political leaders at the time will be important. Former President François Hollande and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve will testify as witnesses.
While France has been a “systematic target of jihadists,” the succession of terror trials since 2012 has not enabled the country to “learn the lessons,” the lawyer said.
“Remember, we’ve been discussing flaws, grey areas, people who didn’t do what it took to stop on time well-known terrorists under surveillance by our intelligence agencies,” Maktouf told Euronews.
“Examples abound,” she went on, with Brahim Abdeslam and fellow 11/13 attacker Samy Amimour all under the radar of French intelligence before the carnage.
Amimour, she said, was under judicial supervision after he tried to send aspiring jihadists to Iraq. Authorities withdrew his passport, yet it didn’t stop him from making another passport to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State group in Syria.
Another question, the lawyer said, is why the soldiers of anti-terror mission Sentinel that allegedly arrived at the Bataclan Concert hall shortly after the beginning of the attack were given the order not to intervene.
A sense of ‘abandonment’
The trial may also be a way for the victims to receive some of the “consideration” they deserve, the lawyer said, with many left “abandoned” by burdensome compensation procedures.
“I deplore the way these people are being supported,” the lawyer told Euronews, describing how the victims were “left alone to fill out loads of paperwork,” with many still unable to find decent housing suited to their specific needs after the attacks left them on wheelchairs.
The Pétards, meanwhile, are not expecting any support from public authorities. They told Euronews they found peace writing their book and in their Catholic faith.
The piece’s title, “The hope that makes us live,” refers to their belief that they will be reunited with their daughters in the hereafter.