Inside Bataclan, One Year After the Paris Attacks
A year after the horrifying terror attacks in Paris, the Bataclan reopened with a special performance by Sting. We spoke to the French people ready to return to the well-loved venue.
This article originally appeared on VICE France
It's 7:30 PM on Saturday, November 12 and the streets of the 11th arrondissement in Paris are buzzing with activity. But tonight, the party will unfold in a different atmosphere near the Bataclan. In front of the Apérock, the bar next to the venue, dozens of people are drinking their pints while police sirens wail in the background.
A big group of police officers monitors everyone entering the zone—the tone is set. In about an hour and a half, the Bataclan will open its doors to the public, one year after the Paris terror attacks. And Sting, who first performed there in 1979, has been chosen to mark the occasion.
In a tense atmosphere, hundreds of people wait for the concert to start. Viviane, 23, is a graphic design student, but also a regular customer of the Apérock, which she considers as her "second home." With her elbows leaned on the bar counter, she seems reluctant to join the queue. She stares at the Boulevard Voltaire, which stands completely empty now the police have secured it. Her eyes betray the state of anxiety that precedes important moments like this. "It feels very weird to be waiting like this. On concert nights, most people are usually in a very festive mood. But now, it's so empty that I feel like I'm in a Western film, during the scene where two guys are about to draw their guns."
Some of her friends are also regular customers of this bar, and didn't hesitate when the reopening of the Bataclan was announced: "It's not like I had a choice," Viviane says, "I said on national TV that I would be there." She lets out a nervous laugh, right before her smile fades and her hands begin to shake. "I've been telling myself for a week that this was going to be an awesome night, but now I don't even know if I'll make it inside the venue. I think I'm going to hold onto little details: I'll stare at the roof, study each bit of renovation work."
Her friend Cedric—who, like her, jokes that they could practically be the bar's managers given "the time and the money they spent there"—is on the same page. "I don't feel apprehension, I'm just try not to think about anything before actually going inside," he says. "We have to stay pragmatic, and let things happen. We're all thinking the same thing: The show must go on."
In the queue, Didier, 48, stands out with his blue eyes, as worn out as his leather jacket. Between the cities of Rennes, Paris, Annecy and Los Angeles, this old backpacker has always been animated by his love of music, he says—as well as by the Bataclan. "This venue represents my youth, another era filled with punks fighting at every concert. This spirit was also attacked on last November. That's what I've come to defend tonight." But Didier is also here to pay tribute to Caroline, a friend of his who was shot during the attack. Throughout the evening, he keeps talking to journalists, as if he needed to hide his anxiety. The concert is now about to begin, under the gaze of the police officers—including Jean, 58.
Jean is an old-school cop who has been doing this job for 35 years. He wears a Harley-Davidson wooly hat and skull rings. He watches over the crowd, looking calm, a walkie-talkie in his hand. During his career, he had to deal with three terrorist attacks: two in 1995, at the Saint-Michel RER station and the Musée d'Orsay, before helping the injured people at the Stade de France in November 2015.
"There's no emotion involved for me tonight," he says. If Jean is as professional as one can be, he's not fully deprived of empathy. "I've seen horrific things at the Stade de France—a ripped arm, vertebrae lying on the ground. But I've never been traumatized. I can't explain why; some of my colleagues never got over it, but it didn't immobilize me. But I can of course understand why people feel very emotional tonight," he says, watching two girls holding flowers cry.
For Viviane, Cédric and their friends, it's also time to go into the venue. A few regulars shout "Welcome home," while bartenders pour drinks. In the audience, several people are wearing a CUMP [Cellule d'urgence médico-psychologique] badge—the social body that provides moral and psychological help to the survivors and the relatives and friends of the victims from the Bataclan attacks.
Among them, Claudine smiles faintly. Tonight, she's seen people that she's been helping for weeks, or even months. Most of the people have abandoned the therapy they started with her, but she's of course not holding that against them: "Therapy is supposed to be a very progressive thing," she says, "it doesn't work overnight. And some people don't like this, which is perfectly normal—it can be extremely frustrating. But it's more than necessary when people have been confronted with such physical and moral violence."
The lights go down, people quieten. Sting appears on stage and starts the show with a moment of silence. The venue has a capacity of 1,500 people and is completely booked. In the audience, there are members of the governments—Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay, spokesperson of the French Socialist Party Juliette Méadel, but also Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, and Valérie Pécresse, president of the regional council of Île-de-France. The French president François Hollande came a few hours before the concert to show his support.
From "Message in a Bottle" to "Roxanne," Sting's concert feels like a plain commemoration and a festive party at the same time—an ambivalence the British artist seems to be deliberately maintaining, helped by Ibrahim Maalouf who came on stage to play on "Fragile" and "Inch Allah." In the venue, people are clapping and showing their willingness to enjoy themselves. And finally, the music takes over this unusual context. Party-goers put their hands up in the air, dance, laugh until the final song—"The Empty Chair," which was written to pay tribute to American photojournalist Jim Foley, killed by the Islamic State in Syria in 2014.
After an hour and a half, the concert ends, and the crowd starts to leave the venue they were once so afraid to set foot in again. Most of the people seem to be stunned by their meeting with the "new" Bataclan, which eventually managed to stay the same. Didier is one of the first to leave. He seems almost relieved. "I'm proud to have paid this beautiful tribute to Caroline. And proud not to have dreaded for something awful to happen tonight." Moments later, it's Viviane's turn to come out. "It was pure joy! It doesn't resolve everything, but it feels great. For a year, I felt like I was a shadow of myself; I felt a huge pain each time I went near the Bataclan. Now, I've reached a turning point. I can't wait to go back."
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Thank you to everyone who spoke to us. Those we interviewed politely declined to have their photos taken outside, and photographs weren't allowed inside the venue for security reasons.