It’s been a long and terrifying night in Paris and in the harsh light of day, the city is desperately trying to come to grips with what happened. With 129 dead and 99 others fighting to survive, France is wondering how this could have come to pass.
There is incredulity, bewilderment and profound sorrow. But there is no sign of anger, at least not yet.
Six simultaneous attacks , meticulously planned and executed, hit Paris late on Friday night. It was a mild autumn night and crowds were out in the streets, getting into festive weekend mode. A Franco-German friendly was underway at the Stade de France just north of Paris. A little after 9pm, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in front of the stadium.
I was at dinner with family friends when the first news alert came. Two explosions outside the stadium and shots fired at a bar in the chic 11th arrondissement.
The first reaction amid our small dinner group was that it could be rival gangs firing at each other. But very soon the situation became increasingly alarming.
Heavily armed men had begun spraying bullets from automatic arms on innocents in the streets; 1,500 persons were packed into the popular Bataclan theatre nearby where Californian rock group Eagles of Metal Death were playing; President Hollande had been in the stadium when the bombs went off outside. He had been safely evacuated.
The casualty figures spiralled very fast. As we drove home in tense silence, listening to the radio, 100 people were still being held hostage at the Bataclan theatre.
A quarter of an hour later, it was all over with almost 90 dead, lying amid pools of blood in the theatre. Bodies littered the streets in the 10th and 11th arrondissements near the bars and restaurants that had been attacked.
Unlike the attacks in Mumbai, where three agonising days went by before the authorities decided to launch a full-scale assault on the Taj Hotel, the French action was swift and decisive. Four hours after the first explosions were heard, it was all over.
President Hollande was on television even as the order to attack the Bataclan was given. This is “a cowardly act of war committed against France by a terrorist jihadist army and France will retaliate. Both inside and outside its frontiers,” Hollande said in a televised address.
A national emergency has been declared, the first time since 1955, and Paris is in a state of lockdown. All museums, cultural institutions, schools, colleges, universities, open-air markets, large departmental stores, cinemas and major landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, have been shut down.
The streets on Saturday appear eerily silent. Except outside hospitals, where long lines have formed to give blood for the victims. French blood banks have never been so full.
All morning, there has been a never-ending line of vans carrying bodies of the victims from the streets and the Bataclan to the forensic sciences laboratory in Paris. The identification will be long and painful. There is still some confusion on whether a state funeral will be organised for the victims.
Police say there were eight gunmen in all and they could all be dead. However, two men were seen escaping in a black car after the carnage at the Petit Cambodge café. Were these the men who then went on to attack the nearby Bataclan or was it another team of attackers who managed to melt away into the night? Police are still unable to give the answer.
And the hunt is underway. Reports indicate that one person has been arrested in Germany in connection with the attacks and police in France say one of the dead attackers has been identified through his fingerprints. He is a young radicalised Muslim who was born in Courcouronnes near Paris. His name has been withheld. Another attacker carried a Syrian passport, which identified him as someone born in Aleppo in 1990 while a third had an Egyptian passport.
The Islamic State was quick to claim responsibility in a communiqué. It said it was waging war against France for its policies towards Muslims and the Islamic world, and for its bombing of Syria. And it said it would take on France’s “imbecile” President.
It is clear France’s reply will be tough and uncompromising. The painstaking job of picking up all the clues about the identity of the attackers, their support systems and their command centres has only just begun.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, France reacted with remarkable sangfroid with 3.5 million people demonstrating peacefully against hate and for the freedom of expression.
It is less sure if the same sentiment of peace and love will prevail. All indications are that an irrepressible anger is in the process of crystallising among the French that, with regional elections looming next month, can only help the extreme right wing, anti-Muslim National Front party.
Vaiju Naravane is a journalist and commentator based in Paris and Delhi.