I was in a kitchen in the south of France, discussing something with my uncle’s wife when he walked in and told us there had been a shooting in Paris. At first I thought he couldn’t be serious but it became quickly apparent that he was and we went into the living room.
It was surreal, the three of us squeezed together on the sofa, glued to the TV, gasping non-stop at the ongoing developments.
My first reaction was to contact a German friend whom I knew was at the Stade de France that evening, then I checked with friends in Paris to see if they were ok as WhatsApp messages rolled in from around the world.
Finally, I left my mother a message on WhatsApp to let her know that I was fine so that she wouldn’t worry when she would wake up in a few hours.
The gravity of what had happened slowly sank in over the weekend.
In fact, I was just at Le Carillon some weeks ago and, like everyone else, we were standing outside the bar with beers in our hands. Le Petit Cambodge, just across the road from Le Carillon, is the only place in town I go to for bo bun — and crispy nems, which I never order elsewhere.
Both establishments aren’t big and stand at a junction of side streets so it’s not uncommon to see people sitting or standing outside by the roadside, tucking into their food or drinking late into the night, as cars and motorbikes drive by.
Just as easily, it could have been me that night.
I’ve always stayed in east Paris, with its diverse and vibrant traditionally working class communities. I head to the 10th and 11th arrondissements often, meeting up with friends for food and drinks, weekend strolls or a bit of shopping.
I have heard of tourists and French people who have cancelled their plans to come to Paris, left earlier than expected and asked if it is ok to take the metro to République (yes).
Well, nowhere is safe really. Authorities can thwart hundreds of potential attacks but all it takes is one to wreck havoc and kill innocent lives.
American friends have remarked how it felt like the days immediately following September 11. The busiest streets in Paris stood deserted for the first time.
I think everyone is in shock, trying to process the horror of it all, that people were killed at random, that it could have been any one of us, enjoying a dinner, drinks or a concert on a Friday night.
For Parisians, most people stayed home the weekend after the attacks but are less fearful, in typical French defiance, as it is not the first time terrorist attacks have taken place in Paris.
I believe the French are thankful for the reaction of the international community. Unlike the “Je suis Charlie” slogan, which defends the freedom of expression and is at times divisive, this time the French flag is flown everywhere in a show of support and solidarity with the French people.
My husband was deeply moved as he couldn’t recall the last time he heard the English sing La Marseillaise.
Most people also know better than to generalize and brand the attacks as representative of Islam.
France’s largely-catholic, European immigration of the past has today evolved into one that has resulted in a population with the largest Muslim community in Europe.
Against a common backdrop of immigration, theirs is fraught with various waves due to a colonial history that is complicated and difficult to confront while Singapore grapples with inflows of migrants from the region in recent years.
Even though many French jihadists increasingly come from middle-class families, what we cannot deny is that France faces the challenge of integrating disaffected and unemployed youth, many of whom happen to be Muslim, who live in the less-affluent banlieues.
What remains largely unspoken in France is that access to education in elite universities and desirable jobs often depends on how un-foreign-sounding your name is and where you live.
For a country that prides itself on liberty, equality and fraternity, it will need to look into how to provide equal opportunities to everyone, including French-Muslims who are feeling increasingly stigmatized because they are not sure how they fit in a secular state.
All public demonstrations are currently prohibited in the Île-de-France region until November 30, but once the situation is under control, I wouldn’t be surprised to see everyone in Paris banding together in a unity march like what happened after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.
It was cathartic and I think we need it now more than ever.