PARIS — France's biggest criminal trial in contemporary history, for the November 2015 attacks that left 130 people dead, began Wednesday in a courtroom specially built to accommodate the scores of survivors and victims' family members seeking accountability.
In total, 20 suspected perpetrators and accomplices have been charged, but five of them are presumed dead and one is imprisoned in Turkey. Out of the group of alleged direct perpetrators, only one — Belgian-born French citizen Salah Abdeslam — survived and will be present in court.
There were some signs on the first day that he will take a combative stance. Asked about his profession as the trial got underway, Abdeslam, dressed in black, removed a face mask required as part of pandemic precautions and said he had abandoned all other work “to become a fighter of the Islamic State.”
Later on, after the proceedings were briefly suspended because one of the suspects, Farid Kharkhach, appeared to feel unwell, Abdeslam raised his voice to criticize their treatment by authorities. “I’ve been treated like a dog,” he said.
The coordinated events of Nov. 13 amounted to France’s worst post-World War II attack. Both in scale and symbolism, the trial is historic. More than 300 lawyers represent about 1,800 plaintiffs. The proceedings are expected to take about nine months, with a verdict in late May.
Security is tight, and hundreds of police officers were on hand on Wednesday.
The temporary, custom-built courtroom has been erected within the Palais de Justice in central Paris, near Notre Dame Cathedral. Classical marble statues gaze out over the scene. Blond wood was chosen to create “a sense of calm.” But emotions ran high as the defendants took their seats for the first time in a glass-paneled section.
Authorities had prepared overflow rooms to accommodate the crowds on Wednesday. Survivors and victims’ relatives may alternatively follow the trial remotely, through a secure audio connection. The proceedings are being videotaped as well, though access to the footage is restricted and it will not be broadcast on television.
Those involved will be supported by psychologists on-site and via a hotline.
“It took them months and years to rebuild their lives. And now, again, to go into it — it’s really hard after six years,” said Sharon Weill, a law professor at the American University of Paris who focuses on terrorism trials.
Others see the proceedings as a chance to confront trauma, both on an individual and a national scale. After years of conspiracy theories and ideological exploitation of the attacks, said Arthur Dénouveaux, a Bataclan survivor, the trial offers French society a chance to “understand what really happened to us, with no exaggeration and no diminishment.”
Dénouveaux was at the Bataclan when the attackers opened fire into the crowd, killing 90 people. He climbed over dead bodies to escape.
The organization he now leads, Life for Paris, has helped other survivors and relatives to prepare for the trial — and to decide if they want to testify or follow more passively.
Survivors’ involvement will turn the proceedings into a “hybrid trial,” said Weill, who expects a focus on the accounts of survivors to establish “the narrative from their point of view,” as well as on establishing the criminal responsibility of the perpetrators.
But the latter point could be difficult, experts caution. In last year’s trial of 14 people for involvement in the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket, terrorism charges were dropped for six of them.
Although Abdeslam — the only one directly charged with murder — was defiant on Wednesday, he may not be forthcoming about the planning and execution of the attacks. He refused to answer questions in a separate Belgian trial focused on his shootout with police as they sought to apprehend him in the months after the Paris attacks. The Belgian court found him guilty of attempted murder and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
The first days of the Paris trial will be largely procedural. Then there will be a presentation of forensic evidence. Survivors are scheduled to testify for five weeks starting Sept. 28, followed by top officials at the time of the attacks, including Hollande. After that, the focus will shift to the suspects.
The main defendants will be questioned in detail about the attacks and their preparation starting in January, which will coincide with the lead-up to the presidential elections in April. Both President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen have focused on security in recent months — raising the prospect that the trial will become an election-year issue.
“If it becomes really kind of a centerpiece of the debate between everyone, that’s where it becomes very painful,” Dénouveaux said.
François Heisbourg, a political analyst who advised Macron on national security, said it would be difficult for the president’s opponents to capitalize on the trial ahead of the election.
Macron “was not part of the problem, and he can claim that he’s part of the solution,” said Heisbourg.
Macron, who came into office in 2017, extended some rules introduced during the state of emergency after the attacks, including the forced closure of places of worship that are deemed to provoke hatred and violence.
But many of Macron’s proposals and changes have been controversial, and a number of them have been rejected by the country’s highest constitutional authority for infringing upon fundamental rights.
Thibault Morgant, a survivor of the Bataclan attack and a representative for the 13onze15 victims’ group, said the worst possible outcome of the trial would be if France compromised on its rule of law.
As the United States approaches the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on Saturday, the U.S. legal response to the attacks embodied by the Guantánamo Bay detention camp has served as a warning to some in France.
“We want the opposite of that,” Morgant said.