Paranoia on Bastille Day By Baird Cotsakis

Patriotic crowds flocked the streets in the early hours of July 14, 2016, as the French prepared to celebrate their nation's Independence Day. Everyone scrambled to find the best viewing spots for the annual Bastille Day parade. Dressed as obvious Americans, our family stood out like sore thumbs as we eagerly joined the herds on Champs-Élysées in France’s capital, Paris.

Heightened security blocked off all entrances to Champs-Élysées with metal detectors and bag checks. I was unsure if this was comforting or alarming, as I was aware of the ongoing turmoil in France.

After smoothly navigating through security, we eventually found a decent viewing spot for the parade. Feelings of patriotism and excitement ravaged the crowds as they waved their French flags with pride. Thousands of French policemen and military officers lined the avenue, sporting their official attire while standing perfectly still.

The parade commenced with President Francois Hollande being escorted down the famous avenue. Thousands cheered and hollered as their leader rode down in an impressive fashion. Standing on my tip toes, I attempted to witness the event from the back of the crowd, getting little glimpses as heads moved out of the way.

The parade continued on as planned: full of military marching, Air Force fly bys, tank caravans, and finished off by hundreds of police officers cruising on motorcycles. I got the sense that it was more a display of military power as opposed to a celebration of independence. Perhaps that was their goal.

Top photo courtesy of Tony Wills, bottom photos taken by author

One thing I found slightly concerning was the noticeable lack of participation in singing the French national anthem. The song was played loudly on all the speakers down Champs-Élysées, although the crowd was silent.

At that moment I realized something startling. At a glance the nation of France seems like a unified world power, and it was easy to get caught up in that viewpoint as I watched the patriotic crowds on Bastille day. However, in my little time in France, I noticed subtle and obvious signs of disunity. The obvious being later that night.

On the way to watch the firework show at the Eiffel Tower, our taxi driver expressed these concerns. After we mentioned we were visiting Marseille in the south of France later that week, he replied by saying in broken English, “It’s not safe down there, too many Arabs.” At first our family put it off as a racist comment, but the events that occurred later that night showed otherwise.

After exiting the taxi, we grabbed a quick dinner at a café a few blocks down from the Eiffel Tower. We sat in a window corner, which had a good view to watch the crowds headed towards the Eiffel Tower. Later we joined them and once again had to go through security checkpoints as we entered the area surrounding the Eiffel Tower. We watched the firework show in awe at the pure beauty of the display. It was a highly choreographed show that looked more like a piece of art than fireworks.

Photo Courtesy of Yann Cardec

As the show progressed, smoke began to accumulate at the base of the Eiffel Tower. I didn't think twice about it, just assuming it was smoke from the fireworks. Then suddenly, a stampede of people were running for their lives in our direction.

Alarmed, I bolted out as fast as I could, confused and scared.

Running on pure adrenaline, I found myself blocks away from the Eiffel Tower before I stopped to think where my family went. At this point I could only assume it was either a bomb or shooting that sent all these people running, based on the look of pure fear I saw in their eyes. There may have been a language barrier but their faces told it all; I need to get out of there.

Once I reached what I assumed was safety I paused to use my brain as my fight or flight response wore off. My initial reaction was to call my parents; however, I didn't have an international plan, so I decided to walk back to where we had dinner that night and hope my family would rendezvous there too. Still uncertain on what exactly sent people running, I was focusing on meeting up with my family first and then figuring out what happened later.

Courtesy of Twitter

After waiting for a nerve racking five minutes, I finally saw my parents emerge from the crowd and make eye contact with me. Rejoiced and relieved I was so happy to see them. Then we all asked each other the same question, “Where is Sara!?"

The last time we saw her was when she jolted out of the crowd like a jack rabbit as soon as she spotted the mob. We prayed that she would logically think to meet back at the restaurant, but there was no telling where she would end up.

After waiting for 15 minutes (what seemed like an eternity), we finally got a phone call from my sister. Apparently the crowd she was running with had gone down a side street, and she was lost somewhere in Paris with a possible terrorist on the loose. Fortunately, she was able to use her phone’s GPS to get back to the restaurant, and we were so thankful when our family was all back together.

Rumors of a shooting, bombing, or firework incident were spreading around the streets like wildfire. Once I knew our whole family was safe, I instantly went on my phone (thanks to the free wifi at the café) to check the news. I was scared out of my mind when I saw headlines of a terrorist attack in France popping up everywhere. I thought for sure that we had just experienced this, but when I clicked on the article I was shocked to see it was in Nice, not Paris.

I was searching everywhere for some sort of attack in Paris but everything was focused on Nice. I then took to trustworthy Twitter and discovered that a truck full of fireworks had caught on fire at the base of the Eiffel Tower, causing the crowds to scatter. I was relieved that nobody had been hurt in Paris, but I realized the coincidental timing of the events is what had caused the pure terror of the crowd.

Within an hour of the accidental fire at the base of the Eiffel Tower, a terrorist in a truck ran over and shot down spectators at Nice’s Bastille Day firework show, killing 84 people.

With Nice being located in southern France, this backed up our taxi driver’s seemingly outlandish comments about it “not being safe down there.” News of this tragedy had apparently spread to everyone in the crowd in Paris, except for us. This caused high alert and paranoia among the spectators at the Eiffel Tower; a prime terror target. So when they saw flames and smoke at the base of the iconic landmark, it sent them running for their lives.

Full of great memories, and tragic memories, Bastille day will be a day I remember for the rest of my life.

Cover photo courtesy of Pierre-Yves Beaudouin

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