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Life and Death on the Boulevard Voltaire

Terror returns to a Paris street with a long history of violence.

Franck Fife / Getty Images

Neither the Mona Lisa nor the Eiffel Tower, nor any of the quais of the Seine, but Le Petit Cambodge, le Café Bonne Bière, La Belle Équipe: Unassuming restaurants, near homes and jobs. The institutions that were targeted for terror on Friday stood for nothing bigger than Paris nightlife, Kronenbourgs freely on the sidewalk, an espresso at the zinc counter. Random, it seems, but if you study a map, you do see a pattern: the attacks are constellated along the Boulevard Voltaire.

The Boulevard Voltaire is a grand, tree-lined avenue that connects the pétanque-heavy roundabout of the Place de la Nation with the Place de la République to the north, and it is the artery where most French strikes take place. First named as the Boulevard du Prince-Eugène by Napoleon III, its construction by the hungry city-planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann was immortalized in Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle of Second Empire novels. The boulevard was renamed in 1870 to honor the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, that French prince of liberté. “In this country it is well to kill from time to time an admiral to encourage the others,” Voltaire wrote in Candide. Perhaps his best-known rallying cry is  “Écrasez l’infâme”—“Crush the infamous thing.”

Not, here, posh department stores serving crème de cassis beneath stained-glass domes. The Boulevard Voltaire has been a thoroughfare for the working-class, and those who are proud to stand with it: unions, syndicates, immigrants, people in protest. In France, today and all days, there are many—marching, yelling, often reveling, past the bars and video-game shops. No wonder a group of independent journalists picked “Boulevard Voltaire” as the name of their website, the tagline for which is “Liberty guides our steps.” Boulevard Voltaire represents the young French person’s way of life.

And, in retrospect, no wonder it was targeted Friday. Just north of Paris in Saint-Denis, where the kings of France are buried, there were terrorists in suicide vests outside the national stadium, and the president evacuated from within. But many of the attacks happened near the boulevard: shootings at three restaurants a few minutes’ away; a suicide bombing at the Comptoir Voltaire at 253 Boulevard Voltaire; and finally at the Bataclan concert hall at 50 Boulevard Voltaire, there were AK-47s and hostages, where there should have been music. 

The street has been a scene of violence many times. During the Commune of Paris, in 1871, it hosted barricades and revolutionary schemes to recapture Montmartre, to march on the center of Paris. Auguste-Jean-Marie Vermorel, a socialist journalist, was gravely wounded on the boulevard during the “Semaine Sanglante,” that “bloody week” that ended the Communard dream. In 1957, the boulevard’s Place Voltaire boulevard was renamed for Léon Blum, the first Jewish prime minister of France, whose country later sent him to concentration camps. 

In 1962, at the entrance to the Charonne Métro station on the boulevard, police killed nine people, most of them communists, who had been demonstrating against the Algerian War and the activities of the Secret Army Organization, an extremist group that violently opposed Algerian independence. In 1996, hundreds of African immigrants seeking asylum occupied the Saint-Ambroise Church on the boulevard—until the police expelled them before dawn one March morning. And, more recently, in 2006, a 23-year-old French Jew named Ilan Halimi was working in a cell-phone shop on the Boulevard Voltaire when he was kidnapped, tortured, and killed for being Jewish.

I lived off the Boulevard Voltaire after college, but I did not know this past, and did not know that it was, at least in part, a Jewish quarter. I did not know, then, either, that my mother’s late mother had grown up nearby. She, a French Jew, had survived the Holocaust in Paris in hiding, and left her country for the United States after the war. (She died when I was two months old, but passed her citizenship onto me.)

I learned about my grandmother from her friend Madeleine, who had hidden in Paris, too, and who never left. I learned about the Boulevard Voltaire from the people who spoke to me on my walks home from the Métro—young French Jews, particularly men, signaling that in France you’re never free from what your face or ethnicity may say about you. Several times I was asked to wear a t-shirt in support of Halimi, to light a candle, to join a Shabbat dinner that Friday. 

From my commute I got to know the Jewish shops and eateries on the Boulevard Voltaire—terrific pastries, imperfect bagels. And I got to know that the Bataclan on the Boulevard Voltaire was owned by Jews, too—Pascal Laloux and his brother Joel—and had been for forty years. For this, it had been targeted several times. 

In 2007 and 2008, Le Bataclan, a pagoda style building with bright red and yellow facades from the 1860s, received threats. The venue was hosting conferences and galas for Jewish organizations. (One was in support of the Israeli border police.) In 2011, a Belgian man named Farouk Ben Abbes, arrested in Egypt in conjunction with a terror attack that killed a French high school student, confessed that he was “planning an attack against the Bataclan.”

Yesterday, Laloux told an Israeli news channel that in fact he his brother had sold the concert hall this past September, and that he had since moved to Israel. After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher in January, the Jewish Agency forecasted that 15,000 French Jews would—like Laloux—leave for Israel in 2015, more than double the number that left in 2014. 

The terror-alert level in Paris has been high since then. But what could have prepared us for this? Satirists who drew the prophet Mohammed, Jews: these were groups of people who, in some awful sense, knew that they were hated—they had been warned. “Je suis Charlie,” millions of French people had said, posted, worn, then, in solidarity—solidarity with others that they (for the most part) knew they were not. The violence against Jews may have shocked, but it did not surprise. But what is the unifying factor, now?

Benjamin Canet, a hedge-fund analyst I met in the wake of the Charlie 
Hebdo attacks, has been cautioning for months that France has under-reacted to the January attacks. Canet once was Secretary General of the French union of Jewish students, a position for which he required security. His father, Jacques Canet, is the chairman and president of the Grand Synagogue de la Victoire—Paris’s central synagogue, where Alfred Dreyfus and Lucie Eugénie Hadamard were married—but the younger Canet has become a permanent resident of New York. I wrote to him Friday night, and he assured me he and his family were all right. But he could not keep from lamenting, from warning again. He wrote:

The right measures were just not taken at the French and E.U. levels. Passport swiping, intelligence coordination, surveillance improvements are just not there. We’ll probably learn, like after the Thalys attack, that the terrorists were on lists but were not monitored.  [The suspect Ismaël Omar Mostefaï had been blacklisted in 2010 due to extreme behaviors in Chartres, the French city where Mostefai lived] Or the government will try everything to hide it.

There will be no ‘national unity’ this time. Or at least it won’t last because hopefully people will not buy the government’s empty words and will ask for real results. “Charlie journalists knew they were at risk…” And, “Jews, well, are Jews…”

This time, will people finally understand that everyone’s a target?

My French cousin Lorraine wrote to me on Saturday, “It appears everyone I know is safe, and everyone that I know remotely knows someone who isn’t.” My mother called her mother’s friend Madeleine’s daughter, Pascale.  One of Pascale’s daughters lost a teacher in Friday’s mayhem. “Her children are young,” my mother wrote me. “And as parents, it’s awful when you can’t protect your children and they know that.”

A friend in Paris who lives close to the Boulevard Voltaire was trying to figure out how to, whether to, celebrate her birthday. She decided to roast a chicken: Carrying on. An American lawyer friend who is working in France for the year sent pictures of young people gathered with candles at the foot of République. “Not even scared,” a banner read. He told me there was extra security outside synagogues and the Shoah memorial. There is always security outside synagogues. “I went to a party in the 10th and danced last night,” he texted me, “because fuck those guys.” 

On Saturday, the owner of the Comptoir Voltaire told L’Express that the terrorist had come into the café calmly. He sat and he took in the scene at 253 Boulevard Voltaire, the sipping and chattering clientele. He waited to order before he detonated his suicide belt.