Speaking to Shocked, Defiant People at London's Vigil for Paris

London's French community braved the rain in Trafalgar Square to mourn the victims of the terrorist attacks.

by Philip Kleinfeld, Photos: Chris Bethell
16 November 2015, 1:00pm

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Thousands of people gathered in London's Trafalgar Square on Saturday evening for a vigil to mourn the victims of the Paris attacks. Like so many other buildings around the world the front of the National Gallery was lit up in the colors of the tricolor, while two water fountains on either side of the square also went blue, white and red.

Throughout the day people arrived to light candles, drop flowers, and pay their respects despite the November rain. In the early evening, members of British faith groups, including the Christian Muslim Forum and the Muslim Council of Britain, gathered holding blue, white, and red flowers and lighting candles on the floor that spelled out "We Are Paris."

By 9 PM the square was packed with mainly young French nationals. At the back, standing on the steps at the bottom of Nelson's Column around 200 sung "La Marseillaise," "Champs Elysées," and Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." At one stage they burst into the chorus of John Lennon's "Imagine" just as an unknown man had done a few hours before outside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, where 87 people lost their lives.

Many of those present were Parisian and many seemed to know people caught up in the attacks, some of which took place in the city's popular, youthful 11th arrondissement.

Taking a swig of whisky straight from the bottle, Sophie Bonnat, 29, said she had been on the phone to one friend the night before as she ran through the streets of the 11th, and another was in hospital after being shot in the leg.

"Just having her on the phone, listening to the gunshots around just made it feel so real," she said. "I was so far away but I could still hear it like it was on my street,"

Bonnet's friend, Louis Lebaillif, 23, who has lived in London for the past four years and now works in a restaurant, found out on Facebook that a friend of his closest friend had died after being shot, though he didn't know where.

"When it happens to your country it takes a different dimension," he said. "It's been the worst year since the war."

At 9 PM a minute's silence took place. Some clutched candles but most held mobile phones above their heads with the flashlights switched on. After the silence finished there was another loud rendition of "La Marseillaise" and chants of "Solidarité."

At times the mood was loud, defiant, and upbeat. At others it was quiet and mournful. Towards the end of night, hundreds formed a circle around a lone violinist dressed head-to-toe in black. People remained silent even after he had finished, watching as he crouched down to pack up his instrument and then sprung up with an emphatic cry of "Vive la France!"

Over the course of the evening we spoke to some of the mourners about the vigil, the past 24 hours, and the future of Paris and France. Here's what they had to say:

Agathe Westad, 25, (pictured left)

VICE: How have you been coping over the past 24 hours?
Agathe Westad: I've been crying nonstop. It's just really nice to be here and to feel some love. Yesterday I spent the evening just following everything and it was horrendous. I have a lot of friends who live in that neighborhood who were having dates or drinks. They got barricaded inside the bars—in the end I was giving them the news from London because the network was saturated and they couldn't hear anything. Especially in recent years the 11th district has really grown as the place to be and a lot of my friends have moved there. It aims to target happy youth. They hit where it hurt.

The mood here seems really defiant though, which is good, right?
Yeah I think we all need it. Everybody I've been talking to is in a state of horror and it just feels good to feel alive. It's a good act of resistance, to sing and be joyful, because it's everything they try to take away from us.

Are you worried about what's going to happen in Paris and French society after this?
Yes, absolutely. This is like an open door for the [far-right political party] Front National. We'll see.

Jonathan Coch, 21

Can you tell us what the last 24 hours has been like for you?
Jonathan Coch: Yesterday was pretty tough. I was on my computer and on the news. You feel kind of paralyzed. You just see the number of deaths going up and up, but you can't do anything about it. I have many friends there in the district but they are fine, they were lucky.

It must have been quite difficult watching it happen from another country.
I would have preferred to be there to be honest. It wouldn't have changed anything but you just want to help or be there.

Are you worried about what's going to happen in French society after this?
I think this is not the moment to talk about it. Now is just a moment to mourn the dead.

Eugenie Valentin, 21

How are you feeling at moment?
Eugenie Valentin: Well I'm a French person living in England and as soon as I heard the news last night it has been a huge shock. The first thing I did was phone my family in Paris and my friends. I found out on social networks that they were OK but it's horrible—three terrorist attacks in Paris in the last year. The 11th district has a huge, young community where everyone goes out on a Friday night. To see that so many innocent people died... It was a rock concert, bars, restaurants. When is it going to stop? It's a huge shock, you just don't know what to expect.

What do you make of the vigil here this evening?
I think it's absolutely wonderful. The amount of people that have come here to show their solidarity and to show that they are here for France and they are here supporting democracy. I think it's wonderful. London has really woken up to this.

Nicolas Sarkozy declared this a "state of war" and Francois Hollande said it deserves "a pitiless response." Does that kind of language worry you?
Yes. Nobody knows what's going to happen right now, whether it's going to be Francois Hollande that raises his voice or Sarkozy, or even [Front National leader] Marine Le Pen. She said to the national news today that, "We need to act and get rid of these people in our country." To see that the extreme right-wing is getting so far in France now is very, very scary. It's a repeat of history.

Clemence Menaud, 20, (pictured center)

Can you tell us what the last 24 hours has been like for you?
Clemence Menaud: A lot of my friends live in Paris so it was really strange. At first I thought maybe it was a joke. A friend of mine was in the stadium and we didn't have news for a long time. On Facebook there was an application to see if people were still alive so it was really good to see that my friend and other people were OK. But we know that it's not the same for everybody. I really want to see my family just to tell them that I love them.

Clair, 26 (pictured center)

How have you been coping over the past 24 hours?
Clair: It's been a big shock but we don't want to be afraid. It's a tragedy for the entire country but I just want to say I believe the government will do what they need to do. I really hope that the people of France do not mix terrorism and Islam—that's the thing that scares me the most personally because we have a big Muslim community back hope and they are a part of the country and what we are.

Did you know anyone caught up in what happened?
Not personally but friends of friends. It's terrible.

It's quite a lively here.
It's exactly what I was saying. We want to show that; yes, you hurt us but you're not going to kill us. We're standing here and we're not destroyed. There was an attack and it was terrible but you're not going to get to us.

Has it been difficult watching on from London?
Yeah in a way. But we're all together whether it's London, Paris, America, China, everywhere, everybody, it's not just France. And we will fight it and one day maybe we will win.

Victor Pace, 23

Can you describe what the last 24 hours has been like for you?
Victor Pace: Me and my friends are students at the LSE so yesterday we were all in our kitchen and started to see the news and discovered what was happening. I live in Paris just near the place where the first attack was. We started to call our friends and we discovered all the events. It was very horrible because, we couldn't imagine that it was our city, our streets that we are so used to.

How are you feeling now?
At the beginning it was quite difficult not to be with your family and I know that my mother is at home alone. But it's very good to be here today with all these people. The French community in London is very close and the English are very close to us too so it's very good. It's good being outside because I know in Paris everyone has to stay in their homes. Today Paris is like during the war, nobody is in the streets. It's not Paris.

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