A Parisian year that began with the bloodshed and chaos of the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo, and later at a Jewish grocery, now has a deadlier coda.
PARIS — The night was chilly but thick with excitement as the big match between France’s national soccer team and archrival Germany was under way at the national stadium in a northern suburb of Paris. President François Hollande watched with the crowd as the French players pushed the ball across midfield.
Then came a sharp, unmistakable crack of explosions, overwhelming the roar of the crowd. A stunned moment passed. Players and spectators seemed confused, and eventually the awful realization swept through the stadium: Terror, for the second time this year, had returned to Paris.
The symmetry could not have been more jarring. A Parisian year that began with the bloodshed and chaos of the terrorist attacks at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and later at a Jewish grocery, now had an even deadlier coda: With events still fluid and exact details unclear, authorities said more than 100 people had been killed in a series of attacks across Paris. But estimates on the total number of dead varied widely in the confusion that continued early Saturday.
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The urgent, bleating screech of sirens filled the evening air as police cruisers raced through the streets, uncertain if more mayhem was to come. Taxis ferried people home for free as police advised residents to stay inside. Ambulances screamed down the boulevards, as a stunned and confused French capital was again left to wonder: Why us? Once again?
“Paris has been hit again by terror tonight,” Deputy Mayor Patrick Klugman said on Twitter.
For three days in January, Paris was gripped with fear, as police searched for Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, after the two brothers attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices, a manhunt that ended with the Kouachis dying in a shootout. The terror only deepened when a third man, Amedy Coulibaly, attacked a Jewish grocery, killing customers.
Those attacks left France reeling for months, dredging up sadness and fury and horror. They also stirred a national debate over freedom of expression and the state of French Islam, a topic that has divided France like few others and seems certain to intensify now.
The identities of the attackers, or whether they are linked to radical Islamist groups, were not known. But some witnesses described militants shouting “God is great” in Arabic before opening fire.
France was already in a foul temper, with the economy stagnant and far-right politicians stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, especially Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front. Le Pen has mocked Hollande as weak and stirred French nationalism by vowing to close borders. With regional elections scheduled for Dec. 16, Le Pen seems certain to keep rising in the polls.
“Of course Le Pen is going to capitalize on this,” said Laurence Bagot, 45, a French entrepreneur. “She has already been using rhetoric like closing borders and increasing national security. Now that’s actually happening.”
French authorities, sharply criticized for failing to monitor the homegrown jihadists who had been known to security officials, vowed to tighten scrutiny of suspected terrorist cells and protect the country. But again, there has been a series of attacks, coordinated and sprawling, with Paris shocked out of its Friday night reverie.
At the Stade de France, spectators described a sense of panic as the explosions shook the stadium.
“Of course, I’m afraid for the future,” said Tony Vandelle, 31, who attended the France-Germany match with his brother. “With all the strikes in Syria, we’re not safe anymore.
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“Already France was traumatized when Charlie Hebdo happened, including our children, who still talk about it at school. This is taking things to another level.”
Karim Laruelle and his brother, Smaen, described hearing three explosions. “It sounded like firecrackers,” Karim Laruelle said “We did not really know what was happening until we started getting texts from our families telling us the shootings had happened elsewhere in Paris. They wanted to know if we were safe.”
It was a question that resonated in every corner of the city. At the junction of Folie-Méricourt and Oberkampf, roughly 150 yards from The Bataclan concert hall, where a rock concert had become a hostage scene, the sound of shooting echoed from the direction of the theater: single shots followed by automatic fire and a series of loud bangs.
In addition to the assaults at The Bataclan and the stadium, attackers chose at least four other busy sites.
A man calling himself Leo, who lives near the Rue de Charonne, told Europe 1, a radio station, that his wife was among the first to help victims near the Petit Cambodge restaurant, describing the scene as a “massacre” and “apocalyptic.”
The day had begun with ominous warnings: bomb threats at the German soccer team’s hotel and at Gare de Lyon, one of the city’s train stations.
Trains coming into the station were halted or rerouted as officers combed the building for explosives. The hotel was also searched. Time passed.
Then the police reopened the station. The city resumed its normal rhythms, unaware of what was to come.