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Life after death in Paris: We speak to NI residents

Laurence White and Kerry McKittrick talk to three Ulster people who live in the city

Published 21/11/2015

Terror aftermath: a French soldier at the Eiffel Tower
Terror aftermath: a French soldier at the Eiffel Tower
Gig attack: the Bataclan following the massacre
Numb feeling: Nuala Morgan and husband Philippe Jacque
Still defiant: Mairead Mone has had drinks with friends in a tourist area since the attacks
Nervous times: Philip McCallen and Coralie Victor

Paris is the city of love, couture, culture, cuisine and art. With its stylish shops, artistic treasures and iconic architecture it has long been one of the most popular destinations in Europe for visitors from around the globe.

It is especially a city where the young congregate, lured to its village-like quartiers which give the great metropolis a sense of intimacy and excitement. Many of its small cafes, markets and shops have remained unchanged for decades.

On to those narrow streets a week ago jihadists brought death on an hideous scale, attacking six sites including restaurants and a concert hall and killing 129 people.

Nearly one hundred more were critically wounded and more again less seriously injured.

Three Northern Ireland people who have lived in the French capital tell what life there has been like since that night of horror and how they now feel about the city they are proud to call home, a city which has given them love, families and opportunity.

'My stomach tightened, the horror was almost too much to take in'

Nuala Morgan (32), originally from west Belfast, lives in Paris with her husband Philippe Jacque, a journalist with Le Monde newspaper, and their two children, a three-year-old boy and a girl, aged one.

The family were at home near the Gare du Nord train station on the night of the attacks with Nuala on her computer following the fortunes of the Republic of Ireland football team in its European Championship qualifying match against Bosnia.

"I received a strange text from my brother in Belfast asking us how we were. When I replied we were fine, he asked about the shootings. It was the first we had heard about them," she recalls.

She immediately began to log on to news channels and social media and her husband began calling his newspaper colleagues.

"I felt my stomach tighten," she says. "When I heard about the siege at the Bataclan I immediately looked up to see which band was playing and if it was likely that friends of ours would be there. It wouldn't have been their sort of music, but we began to ring around to see if everyone was safe.

"Some English friends were at a restaurant not far from where the attacks took place. The owners pulled down the shutters and waited for things to calm down before letting customers out.

"Our friends came to stay with us. They had friends who were in the Bataclan but who managed to get out safely. Philippe had a friend in a cafe opposite the hall and he was stuck in there while the killings and subsequent siege was going on. Fortunately he was okay.

"The district where we lived was in quite a state of numbness that this was happening again after the attack on Charlie Hedbo in January. We stayed up to around 3am as the enormity of what was happening began to become clearer and when we woke up the next day it was as if we were suffering an enormous hangover. The horror was almost too much to take in."

The area where she lives has a high proportion of North African residents and every Saturday there is a big market in the area which is a magnet for hundreds of people. "Last Saturday the market was cancelled. I have never seen the streets so empty. I had planned to take my son to the cinema but it was shut.

"How do you tell a three-year-old that he cannot go to the cinema - something he had been looking forward to - because of what evil men had done? How can he make sense of that?"

She adds: "Of course we contacted home to tell everyone we were safe. Mum reminded me that similar targets had been bombed during our Troubles in Northern Ireland but then it wasn't shown live on television.

"Now that I have kids I realise what it was like for my parents during the violence at home. It makes you think about what sort of world your kids are growing up in."

Nuala works in Lille on EU-funded projects and her feeling when catching the train at Gare du Nord on the Monday after the shootings was "just to get in and out as quickly as possible".

"Since the Charlie Hedbo shootings there have been several security alerts and the station has been evacuated a number of times," she says. "On Monday there was a more visible army presence at the station, but no noticeable increase in checking passengers. Colleagues who travel from Brussels to Lille had to endure quite intensive passport checks on their journey because they were crossing the border."

Nuala described watching the security operation on Wednesday morning in which the ringleader of the terrorist gang was killed as surreal. "Seeing it being broadcast live made it seem like a television drama and you had to pinch yourself to accept that this was real life. We could see people running after the police taking photographs on their cameras and you just wanted to shout to them 'what are you doing, get out of there'."

She has noticed a very right wing switch in attitude since the shootings. "They have started talking about internment or electronic tagging of people on intelligence suspect lists. This brought memories of home and the fact that internment there had not been a great success.

"We have to accept that the present state of emergency is for the greater good, but it does make me nervous about what we have to give up to combat this sort of terrorism. The far right politicians seem to be setting the agenda and, indeed, are forecast to win some regional elections next month.

"I'm of the generation that first got to know Europe without any borders. I've studied in France, made friends from all over Europe, travelled back and forth for work and fun. I'd be gutted if as a result of these attacks we would have to give that up. It would be giving in to the kind of closed society, and closed minds, those terrorists want to instil."

Nuala admits there is a problem with integrating immigrants into French society. "There is quite an elite system of education and the political class are drawn from quite a small pool. Where I live there is quite a number of Muslims and there is a mosque close by. I don't know if that makes me feel safer or less safe.

"I cannot help but be slightly nervous, wondering if there are extremists among those living in this area. Though I have to avoid falling into the trap of some who brand all Muslims as terrorists and remind people that similar jibes were once directed at Catholics in Northern Ireland during the Troubles when some people said they were all terrorists or IRA members.

"There is no doubt that many immigrants suffer deprivation in France with poor housing, lesser education and higher unemployment. There is a whole swathe of people who are cut off from the more elite society. France has created an issue there."

She says that teachers at a nearby primary school have had a very difficult week. "A lot of the pupils would be Muslims and there have been some very difficult conversations in the classrooms during the last few days," she adds.

'People were anxious as they turned the lights off for a birthday cake'

Mairead Mone (43) is an internal communications manager for an IT company. Originally from Armagh, she lives in Paris with her husband, Julien, and their children, Ultan (12) and Cara (10). She says:

I moved to Paris almost as soon as I graduated from university in 1997. I then met Julien and just never left. We live out in the suburbs, near to the business centre, La Defense, but I work at the Trocadero, in the centre of Paris - it's known for having one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower.

On the night of the attacks last weekend, I was at home with my family. My son and I were actually watching the France v Germany football match when the explosions went off.

We heard them on the TV and my son asked what the noise was - I thought it was just fireworks or something.

When the second explosion happened, I knew that it wasn't fireworks. That's when I started getting news alerts on my phone.

At first, it was about gunmen opening fire in the restaurant and that 10 were dead - at that point we didn't make the link between the gunmen at the restaurant and the explosions at the football, but then I got on social media to see what was going on.

As events unfolded, it just got worse and worse. I just watched with disbelief as the death toll got higher and higher, and people trapped in the Bataclan concert hall started tweeting from there. It was unbelievable.

First thing on Saturday morning, we went out as my son had rugby practice, but the streets were completely clear - no one left the house. By the time we got to the pitch, practice had been cancelled.

On Sunday, we had arranged lunch in a restaurant for my mother-in-law's birthday.

The restaurant was half empty and when they turned off the lights to bring out the birthday cake, everyone in the restaurant looked around anxiously and wondered what was happening. Everyone's tense.

There wasn't any question of me not going into work, but the first thing I did on Monday morning was to account for everyone and make sure there were no unexplained absences. We have a lot of foreign nationals working for us and we wanted to make sure everyone was safe.

As a company, everyone was safe, but there was a guy from my last company - a father of two - who was killed at Bataclan. Everyone has been affected by the attacks, everyone knows someone who was there, who was injured or killed. People were talking to me about it at work and about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Back then, you were a target if you were a Catholic or if you were a Protestant, but last Friday anyone was a target. It didn't matter who they were or where they came from.

People are starting to go out a bit more now.

On Thursday night this week, I had drinks after work, although less people came than were expected.

It was in the back of our minds though - we were sitting in a tourist area having drinks, which was exactly what people were doing on Friday evening. There's a big police and military presence on the streets now. I haven't been near the scenes of where the attacks were and I don't want to go, it would be disrespectful.

I know the area - Republic - as it's where I lived when I first arrived in Paris. I did a masters degree about 10 years ago and one of the bars where there was shootings was one that we would go to as students.

There's a big campaign going on to get people out and show the terrorists that Paris is about life and they're not going to stop us from enjoying our lives. Paris is our home, it's a beautiful city and there are so many things to do here.

My mum has been worried about what happened and it's been reminding us both of what it was like during the Troubles - she would have worried about me then, too, and would have phoned to check up on me a lot.

Now I'm wondering if that's what I'm going to be like with my kids."

'If an opportunity came I probably would leave'

Philip McCallen (32), originally from east Belfast, lives in Paris with his partner Coralie Victor and their baby daughter who will be one on Monday.

As we speak Philip is waiting for a train to take him from his work as a manager of the technical support team at an international car company to his home in a western suburb of the city.

It is 9.30pm local time and six police officers armed with sub-machine guns are patrolling the station concourse - a visible sign of the state of emergency called after the previous weekend atrocities.

There is, he says, a palpable sense of if not fear at least suspicion among all those who travel regularly on the trains.

"Everyone is very nervous, especially on public transport. When you get on a train everyone looks at you, checking you out until you take your seat. You can see people getting more and more nervous as the train halts at every stop, gazing at passengers getting on and off. There is a real sense of unease," he adds.

Philip and Coralie were at home on Friday night a week ago when the tragic events began to unfold. His partner works in a posh restaurant in the business quarter of Paris, but had finished working at 6pm.

Philip, who came to the city in August 2012, had previously worked in the hospitality industry before moving to his present job earlier this year. Between them they knew four people who had been caught up in the killing spree. Fortunately three of them survived.

"Paris is a pretty small place in some ways," he says. "Everyone knows somebody who was in one of the sites chosen by the terrorists. One person I worked with went to the Le Petit Cambodge restaurant every day, but I quickly found out that he was alright.

"However one of Coralie's friends who was working as a security guard at the Bataclan concert hall was shot dead. He was one of the first killed when the gunmen entered the building."

In the aftermath of the shootings Philip was among those who went on social media to offer his home as a safe refuge to people who desperately wanted to get off the streets. "We ended up with a bunch of people in our home until the situation calmed down somewhat and they were able to return to wherever they were staying," he says.

When Philip went to work the next day he was the only manager there and only seven agents out of 25 - the company operates in 22 countries - turned up for work. "Two of them have already left Paris and moved back to the UK," he adds.

After Wednesday's gun battle when the mastermind of the attacks was killed, another two agents did not turn up for work. He says the atmosphere in the city is much different from January when terrorists shot dead 12 people at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo.

"This time there were no marches of solidarity. People recognised that in January the magazine was a specific target whereas this time the killings seemed more random," he says.

So would Philip consider leaving the city? "I feel calm but if an opportunity came up I probably would leave. I am thinking about it. I feel that the restaurant where Coralie works could be a prime target at some stage and it makes you think twice about her safety and about what the future might hold for our daughter."

Belfast Telegraph

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