Rattled by terror attacks, anxious French spend summer trying to forget their fears

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 1:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 10:08pm

With every new terror attack, French citizens stoically declare that “life goes on”, but despite this show of defiance, a creeping anxiety has taken hold of society.

Outwardly, the French summer is in full swing, restaurant and bar terraces - targeted in a November attack on Paris - are packed and vibrant, beaches are covered with sunseekers and streets as busy as ever.

However beneath the surface, many are feeling the strain after a string of terror attacks over the past 18 months.

“There is a cumulative effect. At first (a terror attack) is an unexpected event, but now we are in a situation where we fear it happening again,” said Evelyne Josse, a Belgium-based psychologist and trauma expert.

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Users of a popular French online medical forum describe panic attacks on the metro, being paralysed with fear at the prospect of taking trains to go on holiday or going to the beach, with one woman writing she feels that going out in a crowd is like playing Russian Roulette.

“The anxiety is always there,” 32-year-old Thibaut Chaize said on his way to work in Paris.

“We are afraid but we can’t stop living,” he said. “The wariness is always there. Any strange behaviour on the metro or at a concert, all that provokes a bit of fear.”

The cluster of terror strikes began in January 2015, when 17 people were killed in a spree of violence in Paris, including at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish store.

Then in November, when 130 people were killed at restaurants, bars and a concert hall in Paris, the reality of an ever-present danger began to set in, with government talking of “war” and citizens growing used to the sight of soldiers on the streets.

In between, a foiled attack on a high-speed train in France and the Brussels metro and airport bombings only added to the list of places that could be targeted.

In July, when a jihadist drove a massive truck into a crowd in the Riviera city of Nice, crushing 84 to death, and a priest was murdered in a church in Normandy, it became clear that terror went beyond big cities.

“I phoned my son during the Paris attacks. Now it is he who called me, ‘Dad are you ok?’ You never know, it can happen anywhere,” said Eric Lecornu, 57, from Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray where the priest was killed last week.

Summer, when the French decamp en masse on holiday, has been hit by the cancellation of several festivities, from stargazing to fireworks shows and a perfume festival.

Beloved Parisian summer activities such as an open-air cinema festival have been moved indoors, while police on horseback are a common sight and a “beach” set up along the Seine River is patrolled by gun-wielding soldiers.

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On beaches in Saint-Malo in Brittany, lifeguards have been equipped with guns.

“This is new to us. There are countries like Israel where there is a daily threat of a terror attack. One hears talk of the ‘Israelisation’ of our society but even in Israel you cannot prevent people from carrying out certain acts,” said the psychologist Josse.

She said society cannot live in a permanent state of stress, and that like in Israel - which faces the constant threat of attack from Palestinian militants - people will merely learn to adapt to the threat.

“That means that most of the time we will live normally, and certain situations will trigger anxiety.”

Josse is most concerned about a societal breakdown as a result of Muslims being seen as a threat.

“It is natural to identify danger, and dangerous situations, and then avoid it. So the risk is that we reject anyone or anything that makes us think about Islamism.”