City of Light Puts Dark Side Back on Display in Terror Attacks

Last week’s terror attacks in Paris echoed the city’s bloody past in a way many today may overlook.

Since the birth of modern France in 1789, the capital’s history has been almost as much one of trauma as of sophistication. It’s the city of the Terror and of Voltaire, of the Commune and Victor Hugo, of Nazi occupation and Jean-Paul Sartre. In revolutionary times, the Place de la Concorde was the site of the guillotine -- not upscale hotels and fountains.

Violence and reactions to it -- social, artistic, and political -- have been frequent themes in French history, and recent events are no exception. More than a million people marched from the Place de La Republique to the Place de La Nation to show unity after the three-day spasm.

“Violence within the city is part of the Paris story,” said Colin Jones, author of “Paris: Biography of a City.” “Paris is just as safe as New York or London, but there is that undercurrent in the history.”

In addition to being the birthplace of the Enlightenment and haute cuisine, Paris has a claim to having given the world modern terrorism. On Feb. 12, 1894, a 21-year-old anarchist named Emile Henry detonated a bomb in the crowded Café Terminus, across from St. Lazare train station. The strike aimed against the “bourgeoisie” killed one and wounded 15. Henry met his fate on the guillotine later that year.

What made his act novel was that he had no particular individual in mind as a target, said John Merriman, a Yale University professor and author of “The Dynamite Club,” a history of French anarchists.

Killing Plan

“He wasn’t shooting at the governors or police officers or czars,” Merriman said by phone. “He just said, ‘I’m going to kill.’”

Following Henry’s example, self-identified anarchists carried out a decades-long campaign of bombings from Russia to Los Angeles, culminating in a 1920 explosion outside the offices of JPMorgan on Wall Street that killed more than 30.

In more recent decades, Paris has been convulsed by politically motivated violence stemming from abroad, mainly its ties to the Arab world. The deadliest terrorist act of the post-war era was a 1961 train bombing by the OAS, or Secret Army Organization, which opposed French withdrawal from Algeria. It killed 28.

In 1995 and 1996, Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, better known as the GIA, set off bombs around the city in its campaign against the Algiers government. In July 1995, a gas bottle exploded at the St. Michel rail station on the tourist-packed Left Bank, killing eight. Another bomb at the Port Royal station the following year killed four.

Commune Crushed

Other bloody episodes, like the crushing of the Paris Commune by government troops in 1871 at the cost of more than 10,000 lives, highlighted deep divisions in society. That rebellion became a rallying cry for left-wing parties in France and beyond for decades.

In contrast, Muslim leaders vociferously condemned last week’s attacks by Islamist terrorists. Political leaders from all parties except the National Front marched together in Paris.

While “this is a big, unifying event,” Merriman said, unity alone has never stopped terror. “The militants are few, but it only takes a couple.”

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