Two Months After the Attacks, Paris Stays Silent

After a month away visiting family in Mexico, I flew back into Paris last Thursday night, the French capital splayed out before me in all its sparkling glory. Off in the distance, the Eiffel Tower punctured the horizon like a beacon, a lighthouse above the City of Lights. These days, however, it might be more accurate to call it a watchtower, it's bright searchlight moving slowly across the city.

It's been a year since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Today, it's been exactly two months since the terrorist attacks that left 130 people dead across the city. Both have left deep scars. The country is still under a state of emergency. The police conduct raids on a daily basis. There's talk of stripping citizenship from anyone convicted of terrorism. There's a paranoia in Paris that I've never felt before. As a result, the city long seen as the cradle of revolution has grown frighteningly quiet.

Coming off the plane, I was shocked to be confronted immediately by four heavily armed policemen, brusquely demanding everyone's passports, despite the fact that we'd already passed through passport control when we flew into Spain. Young men in military attire watched carefully on.

I got my luggage and prepared to take the Orly Val train into the city, but the entry to the station was blocked. An attendant informed us that some luggage had been found abandoned at the South Terminal, putting the airport on lockdown.

"How long until it's moving again?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said wearily, as if this happened on a daily basis.

And it's not just the airport that's facing regular lockdowns. The friend I stayed with told me that in the month that I've been gone, the metro has been shut down numerous times for security concerns, transforming her journey to her boyfriend's house into an hour-and-a-half commute. When I went to the theatre on a Saturday night, I was surprised to see the two elegant old Parisian ladies in front of me have their bags and coats searched by burly security guards. They didn't even flinch, by now used to the constant security searches.

Occasionally, the paranoia gets deadly. I learnt that the police had killed a man the day I arrived: he'd been wearing a fake suicide vest and wielding a knife.

I get it. I'm scared too. Every time I hear the perennial Paris sirens, I'm taken back to that night. To the police screaming at me near Le Carillon. To the procession of ambulances heading down Boulevard Voltaire towards the Bataclan. The restaurants with their windows shuttered on a Friday night. To the terrified hostages I saw fleeing the concert hall, their hands held above their heads as if expecting a rain of bullets.

But when I spoke to my Parisian friends in the days after the attacks, they were scared too. But there was also a stoic kind of courage. I asked them if the attacks would stop them from going out or eating at restaurants. Time and again I got the same response: "If we do that, they will have won."

Indeed, it seems that for the bars and restaurants of Paris, life is back to normal: young Parisians congregate at the terraces, smoking, drinking and laughing. Even near Le Carillon and the Bataclan.

But the French government, it seems, has given in to the fear.

I've always associated Paris with protests: from the French Revolution to May '68, Paris has always been a city of tumult and citizen upheaval. When I lived here as a student, my journeys across the city were interrupted on a daily by some manifestation or other. Though often frustrating at the time, these manifestations are a quintessential part of France. They are a physical embodiment of what has long been fundamental to the French value of liberté: the right to freedom of expression. It was for this reason that the Charlie Hebdo attacks hurt so deeply.

After the Hebdo attacks, one million Parisians took to the streets in a deeply moving show of solidarity. But since the November 13th attacks, all public protests have been banned. The climate march, which many of my friends and my partner had been organizing, was cancelled, silencing the voices of a powerful and much needed movement for action on climate change. Instead, thousands of shoes stood silently in the Place de la Republique, eerie reminders of a freedom taken away. Those that did protest were met with tear gas and violent arrests. To mark one year after Charlie Hebdo, a small ceremony was held last Sunday at Place la République. French social media lit up in shock to see that just a few hundred people had shown up, in stark contrast to the one million that marched last year. But with all public manifestations banned, with police raids and security searches at shops and theatres, with a total atmosphere of fear - is it any wonder that grief and solidarity too have been silenced?

The State of Emergency is set to expire in mid-February. I hope that with the ban lifted, Parisians will be allowed to take to the streets again. Whether it's in solidarity for the attacks or whether it's plumbers demanding higher wages or nurses shorter hours or whatever the case may be. It would be a far more powerful statement against the Islamic State than sending more planes to bomb Syria. Because protesting, screaming on the streets of this city, demanding what you feel is rightfully yours, is part of what makes this city and this country so great.

But for now, Paris is still silent. And that's the most terrifying thing of all.