PARIS — The biggest trial in modern French history gets underway Wednesday as prosecutors seek convictions over the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people.
Twenty defendants, including one of the alleged attackers, are going on trial in a purpose-built facility within Paris’ historic courthouse. There are close to 1,800 civil plaintiffs, including many relatives of the deceased, and several hundred people are expected to testify over the coming months.
The worst post-war atrocity to take place in France, the Paris attacks were planned in Syria, claimed by the so-called Islamic State and called “an act of war” by then-President François Hollande.
The attacks changed the way many Parisians feel about their city and have had a lasting effect on political debates about Islam, immigration and security.
The terror threat in France has shifted in recent years with the retreat of IS in Syria and Iraq and the emergence of sporadic, solitary and more improvised attacks, whose perpetrators are hard to track by security services.
Here’s what the trial will cover:
On the evening of November 13, 2015, several teams of suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the Bataclan concert hall, a major stadium and several bars and restaurants in Paris.
The highest death toll was at the Bataclan, where 90 people were killed and scores wounded. The rock band Eagles of Death Metal was on stage at the time and the venue was packed when three gunmen arrived wearing suicide vests and started shooting indiscriminately into the crowd.
Survivors recall harrowing scenes of having to clamber over bodies or hiding among the dead, listening to the ringtones of unanswered mobile phones. Heavily armed police eventually stormed the venue, but took several hours before finally reaching the room where the assailants were holed up with hostages.
Gunmen and suicide bombers also attacked popular nightlife spots in trendy neighborhoods in central Paris. For example, 13 people — many of them young people out on a Friday night — died in attacks on a restaurant and a bar on Rue Alibert, not far from the Bataclan.
In the days after the attacks, French police carried out hundreds of raids across the country and a giant manhunt was launched in France and Belgium.
Who is going on trial?
Brussels-born Salah Abdeslam is the only alleged terrorist to have survived the attacks and is said to have been central to carrying out the operation. He is alleged to have dropped off several suicide bombers at the Stade de France and is suspected of planning to carry out a separate suicide bombing in Paris, before backing out.
He was arrested four months later in a flat in Molenbeek in Brussels and has refused to cooperate with French investigators, and refused to answer questions during a previous trial in Brussels. Abdeslam faces life in prison if found guilty.
In an unexpected twist, Belgian broadcaster RTBF on Tuesday released an interview with Abdeslam carried out by a reporter speaking to motorists while police were checking IDs and searching cars at a checkpoint set up between France and Belgium in the hours after the attacks.
One of Abdeslam’s childhood friends, Mohamed Abrini, is also on trial and is alleged to have helped with logistics and financing, traveling, for example, to the U.K. to collect funds.
Most of the other defendants are accused of having provided support either in the run-up to the attacks or afterward by helping Abdeslam stay on the run. Six of the 20 defendants will be tried in absentia because five are presumed dead and one is in prison in Turkey.
What does this mean for France now?
The trial is likely to last nine months and at least 300 people — including Hollande — are expected to testify.
Survivors and relatives say they hope the trial will help the grieving process and bring some closure.
“We’ve all got our own expectations,” Arthur Dénouveaux, a Bataclan survivor and the president of the victims’ group Life for Paris, told AFP. “But we know it’s an important step in building our life afterward.”
In an editorial, the daily Le Monde wrote that the trial was “France’s answer to terrorism.”
“The United States, which was hit on September 11 2001, responded with secret CIA prisons, with the abduction of suspects … and transfer to Guantanamo,” it wrote. “The November 13 trial in Paris must show that democracies can put terrorism on trial.”
Many also hope that the trial will answer lingering questions about what happened. It is not clear why Abdeslam backed out of committing a suicide bombing. Did his vest malfunction? Or did he have a change of heart?
The failings of France’s secret services and the lack of cooperation between European states will also be a focus, given that there had been warnings of an attack.
The trial is also a reminder that the terror threat remains high in France. “We know the trials [following the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Paris attacks] are periods when movements become active on social media,” said an Elysée official. “We remain extremely vigilant, as al-Qaeda propaganda particularly targeted France over the summer.”
Rym Momtaz contributed reporting