There are no trial transcripts in France. It is illegal to record or make footage of court proceedings. What happens in the courtroom remains between those present. The trial of the men accused of the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 is the thirteenth in French history for which an exception will be made. On that evening, terrorists attacked the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, a string of bars in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, and the Bataclan theatre. They killed 130 people, the bloodiest attack on French soil since the Second World War. The trial is expected to conclude this month; the footage will be available in 2072.
Since September, I have been going to a specially built room in the Palais de Justice, a few hundred metres from Notre-Dame, or to a smaller room across the marble hall, where journalists follow the proceedings, tweet and produce their daily reports. The courtroom has a capacity of 550 and has often been full: most of the attendees are survivors of the attacks. It is built of wood, complete with inlays so that the statues personifying justice and eloquence can be seen. At the front is a raised bench where the judges preside. To their left are three public prosecutors. In front of them, at ground level, are long lines of seats for the many lawyers. Eleven men sit in a glass box, with three more in front. These are the accused. Outside the room, a line of TV reporters wait to capture the reactions of those leaving the court.
The discussions that take place inside are the result of five years of investigation. The work has been careful and painstaking. But the trial is being conducted in a France changed by the attacks, where questions of terrorism, religion and social coherence are often confused and debated with little regard for facts. In this room, on days that have slipped from descriptions of extreme violence to grandstanding, I have wondered if the court can set aside what is happening outside it. Can France judge terrorism when terrorism is transforming its political system?
8 September 2021. The mood on the first day is one of excitement. The trial is already historic. It will surely show terrorists that French democracy hasn’t bowed to violence. Its importance is clear from its scale: there are more than 330 lawyers representing more than two thousand victims.
Police are removing plastic from the security cameras on the long hallway that leads to the courtroom. Reporters line up outside the door, each with a lanyard designating their status. Victims who wish to talk to the press wear green lanyards, those who don’t wear red. Lawyers wear black lanyards; journalists’ lanyards are bright orange and bear the name of their publication.
The lawyers will argue in front of a panel of judges led by Jean-Louis Périès, a round-faced man who runs the courtroom like a grandfather at the head of the dinner table. He has spent the past year preparing the 542 volumes of material the court has on the case.
Of the suicide bombers who travelled to Paris on the day of the attacks, only one, Salah Abdeslam, is still alive. He participated in the attacks with his brother Brahim, but his vest wasn’t detonated. Did he choose not to blow himself up or was there a technical malfunction? For the last five years, Abdeslam, now aged 32, has been in solitary confinement. He has remained almost completely silent. Some of the men, such as Osama Krayem, a Swedish national, had appeared in IS propaganda and are thought to have planned the attacks. The involvement of the other defendants is more nebulous. One is accused of having supplied fake documents. Another is accused of having supplied weapons.
Seven terrorists blew themselves up during the attack, or were killed by another terrorist doing so. One did the same during a raid near Paris, killing a second. Five others involved are thought to have been killed by coalition strikes in Syria and are being judged in absentia.
16 September 2021. When journalists talk about 13 November, they usually focus on the attack on the Bataclan. They rarely mention the Stade de France or the bars in the popular 10th and 11th arrondissements. Among the first people to take the stand are the investigators who arrived at the crime scenes, beginning with a secret service operative who went to the stadium. The attack was planned for a night when it would be full: Germany v. France, with President Hollande in attendance. The terrorists were dressed in Bayern Munich kit. But none of them made it into the stadium. They were late and they didn’t have tickets. Instead, they detonated their suicide vests outside, killing themselves and one bystander. Why didn’t they buy tickets in advance? This is not the last time during the trial that I wonder whether it can answer all the questions it raises.
17 September 2021. Patrick Bourbotte, a bald policeman who investigated the Bataclan attack, asks for permission to show emotion occasionally during his testimony.
When we went inside, he says, the atmosphere was striking, gloomy. It looked like a cathedral. The bodies were entangled. We had never seen anything like this. We walked through coagulated blood. We felt teeth beneath our feet, vibrating phones, families calling. There were bags and bodies, bodies, bodies. We walked to the stage where we were told the body of the kamikaze had exploded. There was blood and flesh everywhere on the walls and the ceiling.
He describes a phone belonging to one of the attackers, which was found outside on boulevard Voltaire. Its final message reads: ‘We are leaving we are beginning.’
Under a seat in the theatre was a dictaphone, he says. Someone had been recording the concert. He plays an excerpt. At the time of the attack, Eagles of Death Metal were playing a song called ‘Kiss the Devil’. Then the terrorists opened fire, and in between volleys of shots spoke to the crowd:
Why are we doing this? You are bombing our brothers in Syria, in Iraq. Why are we here? We came to do the same thing to you … The French and American soldiers bomb us from the air. We bomb you here, on earth. We don’t need planes. That’s it. Your president, François Hollande, thank him.
Bourbotte describes finding bits of bodies all over the concert hall: some victims had been picked off, others were mutilated by machine-gun fire. The injuries were so severe that some police officers thought the victims had been slashed with knives.
20 September 2021. The first policeman to arrive at the Belle Équipe restaurant apologises for his ‘cold and dehumanising language … In this context, professional language can seem inappropriate.’
He shows the court a slide detailing where the bodies were found in the street, and reads out the names of the victims and where they were hit:
Silhouette A, near the tree, is the body of Romain Feuillade, who was injured in the neck, abdomen and chest.
Silhouette B is that of Marie-Aimée Dalloz. She was wounded in the neck.
The following figure is that of Thierry Hardouin, found on his back.
The lawyers for the bereaved ask questions. Some of them want to know how the victims died. Where were they wounded, exactly?
Because of the way the French legal system is set up, the survivors and bereaved families, the ‘civil parties’, are also plaintiffs in this trial. Some of the two thousand plaintiffs were injured, others lost friends or relatives. The Bataclan and the city of Paris also ask to be considered plaintiffs. The number of plaintiffs increases over the months, and the lawyers continually try to widen the definition. (At one point there is an attempt to include Yazidis killed by IS. This is rebuffed.)
At times, because of the number of plaintiffs, the hearings are taken up by lawyers making sure that their own clients know that their interests are being represented. Although there is no way for the public to follow the case other than by sitting in the small retransmission room or following journalists’ tweets, the plaintiffs and their families have access to a radio broadcast of the proceedings. Sometimes the lawyers address them directly.
The purpose of the trial seems to shift in these moments. Sometimes justice is a technical problem: the appropriate punishment for a specific action. But this quickly spirals into bigger questions about terrorism, radicalism and France itself. Is there such a phenomenon as radicalisation? What pushes a person to attack civilians sitting in a café? Or, as the judges and lawyers often ask, why France?
23 September 2021. An article in Le Monde:
But the accumulation of precautions, which turns the courtroom into a cocoon for the victims, also has its downside. It creates a certain confusion of roles. Is it the mission of the investigators systematically to begin their presentation by apologising in advance to the plaintiffs for the ordeal that their words will bring back? Is it the lawyers’ job to repeat the telephone number of the counselling service every day? Should the psychologists be present openly in the courtroom, rather than maintaining a soothing but discreet presence outside?
Faced with the men in the box who, to varying degrees, are accused of sowing terror and some of whom still support it today, we expect this trial to show the strength of our law rather than place too much emphasis on our vulnerability.
28 September to 29 October 2021. For five weeks, it will be the plaintiffs’ turn to speak. One by one they walk up to the stand in the centre of the room. Their depositions are records of their experience as much as evidence for the trial; Périès, the president of the court, asks them about what they saw, and about their lives after the attacks. They are invited, during their testimony, to talk about what the trial means to them. For five weeks, their horrifying stories fill the court. Some excerpts follow. They have been slightly condensed.
Sophie, aged 38:
I remember their yells, their smiles. I remember thinking, could I locate Syria and Iraq on a map? I remember them shooting people leaving. I remember them smiling while shooting people who had looked them in the eye. I remember the boy dying next to me. We put him on top of us to protect ourselves … We saw people with guns and asked them not to shoot us. They told us to leave. I later realised they were probably police or military.
I found an Uber that was already taken. The driver and passenger saved my life … I went to the Hôpital Sainte-Anne. I was there until three in the morning. My case was not considered serious.
My operation was around 9 a.m. the next morning. Before then, a policeman came. He was annoyed that I didn’t have a bracelet [identifying me as a victim]. He was pretty aggressive. The nurses had to tell him to go away. I stayed in the hospital for twelve days. After the second operation, I was told I had two bullets in me. One that had exploded in my calf, another in my pelvis. I had to choose whether to leave it or have another operation. I chose to leave it. Four days after that was my birthday.
I felt guilt about staying alive. I went to see my mother in Provence. When I returned to Paris, I was worried I would be killed.
I called the psychiatric hotline. They hung up on me because I was crying too much. They said to call when I was calmer. I saw a shrink, but he fell asleep on me. When he woke up, he asked me to talk about my grandparents.
That was the beginning of three years of psychological chaos.
One psychiatrist told me to watch Chaplin movies.
One began every session talking about the French health system.
Another fell apart when I explained why I was there and I had to comfort her.
Clarisse, aged 30:
I thought: ‘I hope I’ll get a refund’ … We go up one floor, then a second … There are about fifty of us. We are trapped. I say to myself what a shitty death in this room with plasterboard walls. I remember GoldenEye. [She made a hole in the suspended ceiling.] I rip out the fibreglass like crazy, there are electrical wires everywhere, I tell myself that I will end up dying from electrocution. [She and the others hid in the roof space for several hours.]
There was a man called Patrick. He looked like my dad. I asked him to hold me. I took Patrick’s phone. It was hard to text because it was in T9 [predictive texting]. I thought about other hostage situations. I remembered Hypercacher [an attack on a Paris supermarket in January 2015]. I thought, it’s my turn.
Laura, aged 37:
I was hit by six bullets. Even today reading my medical reports, I am overwhelmed … How could I comprehend that my body would lose its capacity to move?
I have to relearn how to breathe, drink, pee. My hand has been amputated.
It took nine months to learn to walk. In the beginning, in 2016, I was transferred to a rehabilitation unit. I spent all of 2016 there. Every day is a battle. I have dark thoughts. My last operation was in 2019, on my femur.
Morgane, aged 26:
I tried not to move. I kept thinking, ‘I just don’t want to be in pain.’ I was very nervous. I remember the moment I got up. I saw many people in a pile. At that moment, I was walking on people. I didn’t want to hurt them. I went towards a wall. It wasn’t very far, but it was the longest distance of my life.
[She described a man pushing her bottom to help her over a pile of bodies.] I thought: ‘If he had done that in any other context, I would have slapped him.’
Outside I saw my then boyfriend. He didn’t have a lower leg anymore. He said he had to make a tourniquet … The surgeon wasn’t sure he would survive. And if he did survive his leg would be amputated. It was amputated the next Wednesday. That was the end of the Bataclan for me.
Sandrine, aged 48:
I only realised about a month later that I hadn’t fallen on people, I had fallen on bodies.
I am wearing the same clothes that I wore that night. I am wearing the clothes because for six years I haven’t left. I see it without seeing it.
When I see images, anodyne images, a landscape, I see that bloody pit. I’m on the steps trying to leave … The person I was died that day. I’ve spent six years stuck in a room, saying: ‘Tomorrow you’ll get up.’ But my body says: ‘If you get up, you’ll die.’ Because that’s what happens if you get up, what happened in that room – you got up and you died.
Shali, aged 25:
I’m not alive. I just breathe. I’m still 18, when I’m 24. Actually, I turned 25 in March.
Philippe, aged 49:
I’m very angry with myself because I didn’t go back for [my friend] Jean-Jacques. He ended up alone. He didn’t die right away because we know that his body was found at the other end of the room. I will never forgive myself for that.
Salah Abdeslam is nothing but a little piece of scum. He makes us believe that he is a warrior. He is nothing of the sort. I saw his brother kill defenceless 20-year-old girls. I would have preferred a thousand times over if he had blown himself up like his brother … It’s time to point the finger at all the little Abdeslams in France.
Joanna, aged 34:
I keep thinking if I meet a terrorist, I will be able to change his mind. I prepare my speech.
I know how lucky I am to live in a France without war, and that although one of my parents is an immigrant you can’t see it in my face.
As for those who don’t regret their actions, I am simply sad for them. No civilian was helped by you.
I am many things, a survivor, a miscreant, a left-wing bobo [bourgeois bohemian], probably what many would see as an Islamo-gauchiste. If this trial and this testimony can serve any purpose, it is to allow me to name myself: I am and will remain a pacifist.
I’m angry at the state, which couldn’t protect me … I’ve heard police here express regret at their realisation that they can’t protect everyone. I am angry that not all victims are treated the same way.
Since 2015, I have been angry at those responsible for the attacks and at people who use terrorism for their own ends. The people who created a state of emergency … and use [us as] victims for an agenda that has nothing to do with what we lived through.
26 October 2021. Today the relatives of the victims are testifying. The court is packed. Among them is a man already known to the media: Patrick Jardin. His daughter, Nathalie, was killed in the attacks. Since then, he has attacked the French government from what he describes as a position of haine – ‘hate’. Later in the year, he will run for office as a member of the party set up by Éric Zemmour, a far-right candidate in the presidential elections. He is the last to speak. I don’t know whether this is deliberate.
He says: ‘They’ll call me a facho, a member of the far right, although I am not at all political. It’s a world I hate.’
He calls the accused ‘vermin’. He berates the victims who have said that they do not hate their attackers. He attacks the father of one victim who co-wrote a book with the father of one of the attackers.
Périès says: ‘Thank you for this deposition that was not political.’ (Ironic asides have become one of his specialities.) ‘Thank you for your faith in the trial. We will indeed respect the presumption of innocence.’ He mentions the necessity of evidence. He says: ‘Everything is not as resolved as you think.’
9 November 2021. It often feels like the courtroom is cut off from the rest of Paris; a protected space whose border is at the third police checkpoint. The days start at 12.30 p.m. and sometimes end after 8 p.m. The lawyers slip from crime scenes, blood, mutilation to long discussions of procedure and legal minutiae. It’s hard to leave: the most important detail might emerge at any moment. All the same, the numbers dwindle. Of the 141 newsrooms that sent reporters at the start there are now only a dozen or so still covering the trial. By mid-November, I have begun to recognise a number of faces behind their masks. The writers for Le Monde who gossip together. The father of a victim who wrote a book about losing his daughter. A famous writer is here too. My notes are full of observations about him. ‘[Famous writer] stuffing some trail mix under his mask.’ ‘[Famous writer] wandering the hallways, eating from a plastic tub.’
Although the court feels separate from the world, the trial is being shaped by currents in domestic politics which have been accentuated and accelerated by the attacks. Since 13 November 2015, France has been in a semi-permanent state of emergency. Much of the anti-terrorism legislation put in place after the attacks is still in place. In the lead-up to the presidential election, far-right politicians debate whether to prevent minors from wearing a headscarf, whether to ban all immigration to France, the supposed dangers of Islam – issues that are then given serious consideration on the radio or in the newspapers.
This alters the kinds of conversation that occur inside the courtroom. Technical questions – to what extent were the attacks planned? What role did the accessories to the crimes believe they had? – often give way to vague questions about religion and integration. One judge asks a witness if the terrorists in the Bataclan spoke good French, without an accent.
From November, the court is expected to hear from sociologists and historians. But some have refused to testify. They are worried about their words being misinterpreted, especially those who have been called by the defence. ‘We would be seen as the terrorists’ sociologists,’ one of them tells Le Monde. They fear the proceedings are too political and that they will be targeted. One lawyer for the defence calls this ‘a form of self-censorship’.
One faultline is the role of Islam – and of religion in general – in the trial. For many years, French scholars have debated the extent to which Islamic terrorism derives from Islam itself: the belief in a strong link between the two is shared by many academics and politicians. The political scientist and Arabist Gilles Kepel insists that the root of Islamist terrorism lies within Islam. He has been invited, along with several of his students, to appear on behalf of the plaintiffs. His position contrasts with that of the political scientist Olivier Roy, who describes terrorism as a form of radicalisation based in social issues. The scholars who refuse to appear are, for the most part, those who believe that Islamist terrorism is a reaction to the French state. For a week, the accused are asked to answer questions about their upbringings and personalities, but questions about religion are forbidden, put off until a later date by Périès.
The hundreds of lawyers do not always have a coherent narrative to offer. Instead, they add to the chatter. French criminal defence lawyers are self-employed. Self-promotion is part of their job. In court, they talk about the sanctity of the trial, and yet they are always on the radio, in the papers, commenting, talking, tweeting. Halfway through the trial, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs becomes a spokesperson for the right-wing presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse and his Twitter feed fills up with arguments for banning the veil. The defence lawyers are younger. Many of them started their career by winning a prestigious competition, La Conférence, which asks candidates to speak on subjects such as ‘Should sirens be allowed to sing?’ Their speeches in court are long-winded; they seem to have set the timer to ten minutes. In Elle, they pose in a wood-panelled library and talk about going on holiday together.
10 November 2021. The most contentious witness in the trial is François Hollande. Yet, for hours, he doesn’t speak – the court is unsure whether to allow him to. In what capacity is he present? As a witness? A former lawmaker? The man cited by name as the terrorists filled the concert hall with bullets?
There are more people in court on the day he is meant to testify than on almost any other during the trial. There is great excitement in the media because this is the first time a former president has been called to testify at such a trial.
The defence lawyers want to block Hollande’s testimony. They argue that the case is becoming too political. ‘They want the trial to be a political forum. That’s not what a criminal trial is about,’ one says. ‘Let’s try to have a courtroom that just looks like every other courtroom.’
When Hollande is finally allowed to take the stand, his tone is oddly jocular. ‘Hello, Mr President,’ Périès says. ‘Hello, Mr President,’ the former president says. He says that France was attacked ‘not for what we did but for what we stood for … not for our actions abroad but for our way of life here … In a democracy, to punish those responsible for or accomplices in a monstrous attack is the place of law and not of revenge. This is the reason democracy will always be stronger than barbarism. And I will add that it will always prevail in the end.’
The other witness listed for that day, Gilles Kepel, is attacked by the defence lawyers. One of them mocks him for planning a conference about his own testimony at the École normale supérieure. In any case, after five hours of Hollande, there is no time for Kepel. His appearance is delayed, and eventually he decides not to talk. He tells Le Point magazine that there has been a ‘witch trial of Gilles Kepel, prepared upstream by attacks from the Islamo-gauchiste academic world, a campaign of intimidation to discredit my testimony in advance … But the postponement of my testimony played into the hands of the defence and I was not treated with the dignity I expected. Duly noted.’
13 November 2021. The court closes for several days to mark the anniversary of the attacks. In Paris, the tone is solemn. Éric Zemmour gives a speech in front of the Bataclan. He twists Hollande’s statement to his own ends:
The former president of the Republic said himself that he knew that terrorists would infiltrate the migrants and he did not stop the flow of migrants … So he did not protect the French and made a criminal decision to leave the borders open.
The head of Life for Paris, the main group representing survivors of the attack, accuses him of defiling a tomb and releases a statement saying that victims of terrorism will not serve as Zemmour’s ‘step-ladder’.
26 November 2021. The mood changes. For several weeks, Belgian intelligence officers are called on to give evidence. They seem evasive; they stumble; they refuse to answer questions. They are reluctant to admit their failings. The Belgian police force’s investigation of the future attackers was ineffective, even when there was evidence they might be contemplating acts of terrorism. Some months before the attacks, for example, they stopped Brahim Abdeslam for a traffic violation. He was already on a list of possible jihadists. But the police let him go when he suggested that no jihadist would smoke as much cannabis as he did. He had with him a document about getting parental permission for jihad. It was in his possession, he said, because he was against young people going off to Syria without their parents’ consent.
The Belgian police refuse to testify in person, citing the pandemic. This angers many of the lawyers, who note that witnesses have come from Austria and the United States.
For a few weeks, all parties are united in their disdain for the Belgians.
10 December 2021. Several of the character witnesses for the accused – most of them family members – refuse to appear.
The testimony of one witness is excitedly anticipated: Azdyne Amimour, whose son, Samy, blew himself up on the stage of the Bataclan. It was Amimour who wrote a book with the father of one of the victims.
Aspects of the book have been called into question. Amimour describes going to Syria to find his son and persuade him to come home. But this is a story he has related several times and the details vary. Some people wonder whether he actually went there.
The man in the witness stand looks tired. He is wearing a lumpy green sweater over a mustard yellow turtleneck.
The judge circles round the Syria trip.
‘You didn’t try to talk to him more? Did you ask what he was doing?’
‘I said, I tried to ask him. I was worried I was bothering him.’
‘But you did understand he was in IS?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘What did you say to your son when you left?’
‘Honestly, he wasn’t very talkative.’
The lawyers for the plaintiffs press him relentlessly. They ask him why the family had never discussed their son, why he wasn’t more curious about what he had seen in Syria, why he didn’t call a freephone number where he could report his son, why he didn’t go to see an imam. Amimour has no answers to these questions, but this does not stop them being asked over and over again. For hours, he says again and again that he doesn’t know. A peculiarity of the trial, it occurs to me, is that the participants complain about a lack of information, yet attack those who might be in a position to give it, and seem to regard what they are told as the wrong kind of information.
18 December 2021. Olivier Roy takes to L’Obs to explain why he will not testify. ‘Such a trial,’ he writes, ‘does not only seek to establish the facts [of the crimes] with which the accused are charged (this would not take several months). It seeks the truth behind the facts. One would like a trial such as the one dealing with the Bataclan to be the trial of a system of ideas, of an ideology.’
He describes why he believes the legal process to be a failure: ‘This debate has consequences beyond the trial. If the link between religious practice and violent radicalisation is validated by the court, then religious practice becomes an indication of entry into a process of radicalisation. Thus, we see that an expert’s analysis is part of the definition of the crime and thus anticipates guilt. Instead of being enlightening, it prejudges things.’
6 January 2022. Osama Krayem, the alleged Swedish IS member, refuses to appear in court. ‘I feel that we are all pretending and that this trial is an illusion,’ he says in a letter read to the court by his lawyer. ‘I have made the decision not to speak again until the end of the proceedings.’
13 January 2022. Krayem’s character witness, a man who taught him in prison, does speak. He wears a black coat and a grey sweater with a zip. He talks about Krayem’s consistency, the importance he places in trust. He didn’t want to take French lessons with the other inmates because he worried that they might judge him. But he also wants to hide the fact that he knows some French so that he can find out what the others think of him. The teacher describes them reading Tintin together; later, they study maths.
The teacher speaks softly, patiently. He notes that someone else at the prison says that, 13 November aside, Krayem seems to be a man of great humanity. The statement seems odd. As well as the attacks in Paris, Krayem has been investigated for a possible attack on Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and for participating in an IS execution of a Jordanian pilot.
This sets off the lawyers for the plaintiffs. One tells him that for the accused he is an infidel. He cites a message Krayem sent his brother. ‘The unbelievers are our enemies, hate them, but do not show it.’ He tells the teacher that to his student, he is an enemy. The teacher demurs. Later, he says: ‘If we want to live in a democracy people must speak during trials.’
3 February 2022. For weeks the court is closed off and on. The accused have Covid, one after another. The media is busy with the upcoming presidential election. In opinion polls, the French say they are concerned about issues like inflation. The politicians are fighting to prove they are more opposed to immigration than any of their rivals. Zemmour’s supporters begin to attack Pécresse for being too ‘tolerant’ of ‘political Islam’. A few weeks later, she discusses ‘great replacement’ theory. This backfires and she falls in the polls.
January/February 2022. Abdeslam is scheduled to speak. Many have been waiting for this. In the courtroom, my neighbour complains about the crowds. She calls it ‘la starification’ of Abdeslam.
The man in the box doesn’t look like a star; he looks like a college student about to have an interview for his first job. He wears a white shirt, black trousers and a black mask. ‘I wanted to say today that I did not kill anyone,’ he says. ‘I did not hurt anyone, not even a scratch. Since the beginning of the case, they have not stopped slandering me. “Slander, slander and something will always stick,” as Voltaire said.’ In its liveblog, Le Figaro points out that the quote is not from Voltaire, but Francis Bacon.
‘That is why they would like to judge me today,’ he continues. ‘I notice that in terrorist cases, the sentences pronounced are extremely severe for people who sometimes did not kill, did not hurt anyone. I understand that justice wants to make an example of us. I would like us to send another message: in the future, when there is an individual who finds himself in the subway, on a bus, with a suitcase stuffed with 50 kg of explosives, and who, at the last moment, does not want to do it, well this individual will know he can’t [change his mind], because they’re going to hunt him down, lock him up, humiliate him, like I am today.’
The statement leads many journalists to report that Abdeslam confirmed he chose not to blow himself up. But the statement is deliberately vague. He works the crowd. He cracks jokes; he is charming. He looks like he is about to reveal all. But his testimony makes less and less sense. On the one hand, he seems to be arguing that he should be in some way thanked for not setting off his suicide vest. On the other, he seems to be making a case for terrorism. He defends slavery, murder, public executions, often resorting to bizarre equivalencies.
‘I can’t answer yes or no. In France, before François Mitterrand, the death penalty existed and people were in favour of it,’ he says.
‘There was no propaganda in the media, it wasn’t filmed,’ Périès replies.
‘Yes, but Islamic State follows the Quran, the Islamic tradition. And in the Quran, there is that provision. If people fight Islam, they can be held captive …’
‘Slavery has been abolished in all democracies.’
‘Yes, but not in Islam … We are not going to change our religion to please others.’
After each wild statement – Abdeslam declares that he is not a danger to society; he offers to meet the victims’ families – you can hear the click of computer keys. One of these statements will be tomorrow’s headline. None will offer what so many are seeking in this trial: an explanation for the attacks; a prescription that will explain how France can find some kind of closure.
In the weeks that follow, new investigators, new policemen, new witnesses testify in the courtroom. Some give technical explanations, but these do not always fully satisfy the judges or those who have been following the trial. An expert shows, for example, that Abdeslam’s suicide vest didn’t work properly – but this doesn’t prove that he decided not to participate in the attacks, as he claims.
In court on that day in February, his lawyer struggles to defend him. She seems to want to show that the evidence tying him to the attack is nothing but a series of coincidences. But he loses the thread, and when she keeps asking him questions, he says to her: ‘Give me the answer.’
Listen to Madeleine Schwartz discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.