A painful project for France: A museum on the ravages of terrorism

No other country in Western Europe has suffered as much from terrorism as France over the past decade. With more than 50 attacks that have killed nearly 300 people — including dozens of children and teenagers — the nation has borne the brunt of some of the worst attacks in Europe.

>> Gaëlle FournierThe New York Times
Published : 31 March 2021, 08:25 AM
Updated : 31 March 2021, 08:25 AM

Now, France plans to memorialise this collective suffering with a new museum that will trace the development of terrorism over the ages, including the attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan concert hall in Paris that have deeply shaken the country in recent years.

The move is a bold one given that the country is still grappling with the trauma of these attacks, with victims whose physical and psychological wounds are still raw. Only last fall, there were a series of new attacks, including the beheading of Samuel Paty, a history teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech.

In addition to the death toll, nearly 1,000 people have been wounded in attacks since 2012.

But the planners of the project say the museum is needed to help the people of France to confront and understand a scourge that they will be living with for some time.

“The very fact that we are creating a memorial museum while the phenomenon of terrorism has no chance of vanishing in the years to come is a way of showing our capacity to take a step back,” Henry Rousso, a French historian who is overseeing the project, said in an interview.

“It is a form of resistance through culture, knowledge, intelligence and the transmission of experiences,” said Rousso, who also helped create the Caen Memorial Museum, which marks the Normandy landings of World War II, and the Shoah Memorial in Paris, commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

President Emmanuel Macron of France pledged in September 2018 to create a memorial museum to place the victims of terrorist attacks “at the heart of our memories.” The new museum is expected to be inaugurated in the Paris area by 2027 and will aim to show how France and other terrorism-affected countries have reacted to attacks over the past 50 years, with a particular emphasis on the resilience of their people.

Rousso said the perpetrators of the attacks would also be featured in the museum. Responding to questions he has faced about whether the museum would unintentionally glorify them, he said it was important to represent them as well.

“It is a history museum,” he said. “When we do one on Nazism, we have to mention Himmler and Hitler.”

Gérôme Truc, a sociologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research who is helping create the museum, called worries about glorifying perpetrators a “red herring.”

A mural pays tribute to victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack near the magazine’s former offices in Paris on Dec 14, 2020. No other country in Western Europe has suffered as much from terrorism as France over the past decade. Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times

Rousso and Truc said they were sensitive about how terrorists might be presented in the museum, noting that depictions might focus on them wearing handcuffs in court instead of posing with guns.

Christophe Naudin, a history teacher who was at the Bataclan on Nov. 13, 2015, when gunmen burst in and killed 90 people — a total of 131 died that day in terrorist attacks across Paris — said he was in favor of mentioning the names of assailants in the new museum, but with caution.

“I know some victims refuse to say or see them,” said Naudin, who wrote a book about his experience. “I prefer to avoid seeing their pictures. I know a lot of victims wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

Last fall, France was struck by a string of deadly terrorist attacks that came at the same time as the trial of 14 people who aided the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, in which a dozen people working for the satirical magazine were slaughtered. In addition to the beheading of Paty in October, three people were killed at a church in Nice that month.

Rousso said that unlike the Sept 11 memorial in New York, the French memorial museum would not be dedicated to a particular attack. It will feature exhibitions, conferences and films on attacks around the world, and a historical retrospective on terrorism in France, dating to the plot targeting Napoléon Bonaparte, will also be part of a permanent exhibition.

The museum’s exact location is expected to be decided by next spring.

A memorial for victims of terrorism has existed in Paris since 1998, in the gardens of Les Invalides, where Napoléon is entombed — a fountain and bronze statue of a beheaded woman with dark, empty eyes and her head in her hands. But unlike the reflecting pools that mark the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York, the Paris memorial is not widely known or visited, except by officials commemorating France’s national day of remembrance for terrorism victims on March 11.

“The nation does not forget,” Macron wrote on Twitter after laying a wreath at the statue at this year’s commemoration.

The memorial was inaugurated at a time when France’s mindset on terrorism was very different. Françoise Rudetzki, founder of the first victims association, SOS Attacks, which commissioned the statue, said that “back in the 1980s, people were looking at me in a funny way, telling me that we will soon be done with terrorism.”

Now, there is broad acknowledgment that it is here to stay, said Rudetzki, who is also a member of the memorial museum advisory committee and was wounded in a terrorist bombing in 1983 that cost her the use of her legs.

The future memorial will list the names of victims of terrorism attacks in France and French victims of attacks abroad. It will cover a period starting in 1974, the year that Carlos the Jackal carried out the bombing of a Paris drugstore and when France began granting “a medal of recognition” to victims of terrorist attacks, Rousso said.

Inspired by memorial museums around the world, such as the 22 July Centre in Oslo, Norway, officials have started identifying objects and documents that could be showcased, such as text messages sent by victims, sealed court records, and poems and drawings left at ephemeral memorials.

“Terrorism, whether we like it or not, is part of our societies,” Rousso said. “Creating a museum is not a way to put the issue behind us. It is a way to make people understand it.”

© 2021 New York Times News Service

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher