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Solidarity, Divisions on Display as France Mourns Paris Victims

  • Lisa Bryant

Guests, right, attend during a ceremony in the courtyard of the Invalides in Paris, Nov. 27, 2015.

Guests, right, attend during a ceremony in the courtyard of the Invalides in Paris, Nov. 27, 2015.

As French President Francois Hollande presided over a somber ceremony Friday at the Invalides military complex, Christophe Huguet stood on a ladder outside his bar, finishing his own tricolor tribute to the 130 killed and more than 350 wounded in this month’s Paris attacks.

“Suddenly, we’re asking ourselves what it means to be French, to live in France, something we do daily without giving it a second thought,” Huguet said after clambering down to answer a question about what it means to be French in the aftermath of the bloodbath.

“To remember who we are in a context like today is unfortunate,” he added, “but why not?”

Across the country, French citizens honored the victims of the November 13 attacks with a rare display of patriotism, responding to government calls to hang flags outside their windows and snapping selfies with them. The demand for flags quickly exhausted supplies and — with memories of France’s collaborationist Vichy government still smoldering — sparked controversy in some quarters.

In Paris, city residents and tourists flocked to makeshift shrines for the nearly 500 victims of the string of nearly simultaneous shootings and bombings for which the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility.

“We all feel involved, perhaps more than the rest of France,” said Martin Galtiau, who lives near several of the nightspots where the attacks took place. “Today, yes, we feel proud. We see French values of democracy and peace on display.”

At the Place de la Republique in central Paris, New Yorker Robin Fetchko contemplated a giant mural displaying the city’s ancient motto, Fluctuat Nec Mergitur (Latin for “tossed but not sunk”) that has come to symbolize the post-attack spirit.

“What I see here is Paris will be on rocky waters but it will continue to sail — that’s just as important as the mourning,” Fetchko said.

“That’s the same kind of feeling I had about 9/11,” she added, referring to the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. “Parisians will get up and go on and be happy and live crazy lives … just as New Yorkers did.”

Those sentiments were echoed across the city as Hollande paid tribute to this month’s victims at a ceremony attended by their families and attack survivors.

“We will sing even more, continue going to concerts and stadiums,” he said. “France sticks to its principles of hope and tolerance.”

WATCH: Related video of French memorial

The official mourning capped a dramatic week as neighboring Brussels was put on a terrorism alert and Hollande went on a whirlwind global tour to try to drum up support for a unified front against Islamic State.

Closer to home, authorities detained and questioned hundreds of people as a search continued in France and Belgium for at least two suspects and their accomplices linked to the attacks. The Paris prosecutor also revealed frightening new details about an alleged plot to attack La Defense, a business district outside Paris.

A pair of recent polls suggested most French backed new law-and-order measures, including parliament’s recent vote to extend the country’s state of emergency by three months. Hollande has also seen his once-dismal popularity ratings shoot up.

But French unity is already showing cracks. Some victims' relatives boycotted Friday’s ceremony at Invalides, complaining that authorities had failed to take proper security precautions.

People wounded in the November 13 Paris attacks wait for the start of a ceremony in the courtyard of the Invalides in Paris, Nov. 27, 2015.

People wounded in the November 13 Paris attacks wait for the start of a ceremony in the courtyard of the Invalides in Paris, Nov. 27, 2015.

And other residents fear France is tilting in the opposite direction, as the government considers writing the current state of emergency into the constitution.

“We understand that in this very specific, exceptional context, such measures can be put into place for a very specific duration of time,” said Nicolas Krameyer, head of Amnesty International France’s free-expression program. “Our main concern is that the state of emergency and some of the exceptions to the state of law become permanent.”

Marches and other public events for next week’s U.N. climate conference outside Paris have been banned, while police searches around the country have shot up.

“It’s too early to talk about a French Patriot Act,” said Krameyer, referring to the U.S. security legislation passed after Sept. 11, 2001. “But certain measures can definitely be threatening the state of law and human rights, like [restrictions] on free expression and association.”

At the Place de la Republique, Laetitia Gaspar recalled the massive anti-terror demonstrations that rocked the square after the series of terrorist incidents last January in France that included the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. She expressed regret that emergency measures barred people from protesting this time around.

“It’s part of French culture to demonstrate, and I think it would give us a sense of cohesion after these attacks,” Gaspar said, adding: “I’m worried these measures will divide us exactly when we need to be united.”

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