When Islamic State attackers struck Paris in 2015, France’s president at the time was within earshot of the first suicide bombing.
By the time the bloodshed finally ended hours later, 130 people were dead and François Hollande watched from the street as bloodied survivors staggered out of the Bataclan concert hall.
Surrounded by a squad of security guards, the former French president entered a specially designed courtroom Wednesday to testify in the trial of 14 men over the Nov. 13, 2015, Islamic State attacks on Paris. He also defended his government’s policies in Iraq and Syria — cited by both the dead attackers and the cell’s lone survivor as the reason innocent French people were targeted that night.
Hollande was at France’s national soccer stadium when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the gates that night, the first in a series of attacks across Paris that would last for three more hours.
French officials had known for months that the country could be a target, Hollande testified. He said it was even known that Islamic State extremists were entering disguised as refugees. “But we did not know where, when, or how they would strike us,” he said.
After the suicide attack at the stadium, gunmen opened fire at cafes and bars in the city center, and the night culminated with a bloody siege at the Bataclan concert hall. Hollande ordered the final assault on the three remaining attackers inside the Bataclan and shortly afterwards asked to go to the site himself, watching survivors walk out.
“I see people leaving the Bataclan, even then, holding on to each other. They see me and cannot say a single word,” he testified. “This will remain with me forever.”
All nine attackers died. Salah Abdeslam, the chief defendant in the trial, discarded a malfunctioning explosives vest and fled home to Belgium. His brother died in Paris trying to detonate his vest at a café.
Except for Abdeslam, most of the 14 men in the courtroom are accused of helping with logistics or transportation. Six others are being tried in absentia.
Hollande was pressed repeatedly on whether government policy and intelligence failures led to the attacks. He insisted that there was no specific intelligence of an attack planned that night, although concerts and sports events were always thought to be possible targets of an extremist group bent on mass casualties.
“If you wanted to avoid all risk of attack you would have had to close every site, cancel every show. Is that what’s expected of the president?” he asked.
Hollande said he first learned there was an Islamic State cell dedicated to plotting attacks in Europe in June 2014, and first heard the name of Abdelhamid Abaaoud as its French-speaking operational leader in August 2015. He said authorities believed Abaaoud, a Belgian who spearheaded the Paris attacks and died in a police raid days later in the suburb of Saint Denis, was in Syria heading up a Raqqa-based Islamic State cell to attack Europe.
On Sept. 27, 2015, Hollande said, French airstrikes hit Raqqa for the first time, in large part to try and disrupt any plot. But by then Abaaoud was already on the way to Paris along with other Europeans in the cell.
With the attack still ongoing, Hollande declared a national state of emergency and attempted to close France’s borders. But Abdeslam slipped out with the help of friends from Brussels, who drove through the night to fetch him and are now among those charged in Paris.
The same loose circle of Islamic State fighters later attacked the airport and metro in Brussels, days after Abdeslam was found at a hideout in Molenbeek, the neighborhood of the Belgian capital where he, Abaaoud and many of the other defendants grew up together.
As he promised in his opening statement, Hollande answered every question put to him by victims’ lawyers, even when the presiding judge grew testy at times with their repetition.
It was, he said, his responsibility: “I owe it to those who survived and who live every day in their flesh and in their minds the memory of this evening and who seek and demand explanations.”
Defense lawyers questioned French policy in Syria and Iraq. Hollande and the French government’s airstrikes in Iraq and Syria were cited by name by the three French attackers inside the Bataclan, who killed 90 people. Civilian deaths were also cited by Abdeslam when he first spoke at the trial.
“The questions that I ask are not intended to legitimize the attacks,” Abdeslam’s lawyer, Olivia Ronen, said after a particularly tense exchange with the former president.
“This pseudo-state declared war with the weapons of war,” Hollande said, when asked for the legal basis for carrying out airstrikes. As for the French and Belgian attackers who struck back against their homelands, Hollande said:
“Theirs was the school of barbarism. Happily, French schools aren’t responsible and teach against such things. This wasn’t religion but fanaticism and barbarism.”