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The ‘Trial of the Century’ Will Test French Values

With 14 alleged terrorists on the stand and an election coming up, can politicians resist weighing in?

PARIS—The French radio station RTL has described it as the “trial of the century”: Six years since the Nov. 13, 2015, Paris terrorist attacks, the remaining alleged perpetrators and their accomplices may finally be brought to justice.

On that Friday night, Islamic State terrorists targeted six sites across the city—the Bataclan concert hall, the Stade de France soccer stadium, and numerus restaurants and bars—leaving 130 people dead and 416 injured. The attacks caused the worst loss of life on French soil since World War II and forged an indelible mark on French society.

The trial will be historic for its sheer scale alone; an entirely new courtroom was constructed to accommodate everyone involved. There are 330 lawyers and nearly 1,800 plaintiffs—of which 300 are victims, a group that includes the wounded and families suing on behalf of killed relatives. Twenty men stand accused of planning and carrying out the attacks. Six are being tried in absentia, although sources suggest the terrorist network could be much wider.

Jean-Louis Périès, the presiding judge at the Palais de Justice courthouse in Paris, spent more than a year studying the files of the investigation, 542 volumes that collectively number a million pages. Describing the proceedings in court, he said, “This is an abnormal trial, but the due processes must be respected.” That sentiment, many involved in the trial say, has been key to the calm atmosphere that has so far prevailed.

The marathon proceedings opened with hearings on Sept. 8 and are set to last about nine months—meaning that they will likely conclude after the second round of the 2022 French presidential election, which is predicted to end in an April 24 runoff between President Emmanuel Macron and the leader of the far-right National Rally party, Marine Le Pen. This temporal overlap has sparked concerns that politicians could instrumentalize the trial at a time when security and immigration continue to be hot topics in France. A recent poll conducted by BFMTV indicates that security is the main election issue for 1 in 3 French voters.

In short: The stakes of the trial couldn’t be higher—for everyone in France.

Samia Maktouf, a lawyer representing 40 civil parties from several locations targeted by the attackers, told Foreign Policy that the trial has revived the pain of the events of that day for many of her clients. “It’s a new trial for them, but it was expected—after six long years, we had prepared our clients. But it remains a terrible impact, and it’s made worse by the repeated provocations of Salah Abdeslam,” she said.

Salah Abdeslam, 32, a Belgian-born French national, is the main defendant in the trial and the only surviving member of the Islamic State cell in question. When the Islamic State declared its responsibility for the attacks mere hours thereafter, the group referenced an additional operation in Paris’s 18th district that never occurred. Investigators believe Abdeslam may have been given that job. Why he instead dumped his explosive belt in a trash can and went on the run remains a mystery.

Since his arrest in March 2016, Abdeslam has largely remained silent, refusing to cooperate with investigators. But on Sept. 15, with Périès’s permission, he spoke up in court, proclaiming: “We attacked France, targeted its population, civilians, but there was nothing personal.” This admission of guilt is one of a series of comments he has made using the collective “we”—which some say hint at an ongoing commitment to the Islamic State’s ideals. Abdeslam’s words also appear to suggest that, despite its territorial and military defeats, the Islamic State—at least insofar as it represents an ideological allegiance—remains intact.

Céline Martelet is a freelance journalist who has followed the trial from its start. Of Abdeslam, she said: “He’s clearly there to pass a message—meaning ‘we’ still exist, I’m a part of this, I’m a fighter for ISIS. He’s technically just a driver, he wasn’t sent from Syria. The media constructed this image of him as ‘someone,’ but in reality, he was a bit of a nobody. Some say this trial is his lifeline—he seems to have fully integrated this identity. When he speaks, he looks the judge and the victims directly in the eyes.”

For some victims, Abdeslam’s intensity has proved too much to bear. Tears and gasps were reported when he addressed the victims directly, whom he refers to as collateral damage in a wider war.

Just last week, he described the Paris attackers as his “brothers” and told Périès, “We can be at war, hate one another, but the door of dialogue must remain open.” The judge responded by saying, “It isn’t by shooting a Kalashnikov on terraces, a concert hall, or by blowing yourself up at a football stadium that one has dialogue.”

Maktouf says she disapproves of the focus on Abdeslam: “I deplore the fact we only speak of Salah Abdeslam. … Let’s not forget this is a trial of 14 people, their mentors, and also those not on the stand.”

Twelve of the accused, including Abdeslam, are facing life sentences, but only Abdeslam is charged with murder. The other defendants present are believed to be accomplices. All the direct perpetrators, bar Abdeslam, are dead.

Xavier Nogueras is the defense lawyer for one of the accused, Mohamed Amri. His client is alleged to have driven to Paris from Belgium to collect Abdelslam after the attacks, effectively assisting his escape. Nogueras says Amri denies knowingly assisting Abdeslam and intends to cooperate during questioning. He claims Amri had no prior knowledge of Abdeslam’s radicalization and was merely doing him a favor after his car broke down.

Nogueras, like many of the defense lawyers, is often asked how he can justify representing accused terrorists. “First off,” he told Foreign Policy, “the role of the defense lawyer is a role which is nonnegotiable. If you want a trial to be fair, everyone needs to be heard. A trial is a balance of contesting force, and defense is an integral part of that.”

He also emphasized that fair and measured proceedings are in and of themselves a stand against the violence of the Islamic State. “The definition of terrorism is to try and harm the fundamental values of the nation—to stop it functioning as it should. Without due process, the terrorists win. This process is a sign that the rule of law will win,” Nogueras said.

So far, the proceedings have remained separate from France’s looming 2022 presidential campaign. But this could easily change.

The 2020 trial that followed the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, perpetrated by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, saw France and other European countries hit by what seemed to be revenge attacks. Three weeks into the trial, on Sept. 25, a Pakistani man armed with a butcher’s knife attacked two people outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices where the shooting had taken place. Six weeks into the trial, on Oct. 16, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee murdered schoolteacher Samuel Paty after he showed students the Charlie Hebdo caricatures that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. And eight weeks into the trial, on Oct. 29, a young Tunisian man armed with a knife killed three people at a church in Nice, France.

“Since 2015, France has lived with the terrorist threat,” said Martelet, the freelance journalist. “There were many attacks in 2016, last year another attack. We are living with this threat in France, so it has been part of our political debates for a while. The debate on security, on laïcité [the French principle of secularism], radical Islam—it is already present and has been political fodder for a while. I don’t think the trial will change much now. But given the timing of the verdict, there is every chance the verdict will influence the presidential debate.”

Current polls suggest next year’s election will be a Macron-Le Pen rematch. The far-right is pressing Macron hard, and so far, he has been acquiescing. In April, the French National Assembly passed the government’s “global security” bill to mass protests across the country, and Macron signed it into law a month later. Amnesty International has warned that the new law risks creating a “dystopian surveillance state,” while hundreds of journalists, trade union leaders, and intellectuals united to denounce the law’s authoritarian drift.

Meanwhile, Islamophobia continues to move even further into the French mainstream.

Last November, the government issued a dissolution decree against France’s most prominent Muslim civil liberties organization, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, on the grounds that it posed an “Islamist” threat to the republic. This occurred not long after the government announced an “anti-separatism” bill, which would require French imams to sign a “republican charter.” Human rights groups denounced both as threats to civil liberties that inhibit the ability to properly denounce and combat Islamophobia.