Paris attacks: Survivors who found friendship in marathon terror trial

By Lucy Williamson
BBC Paris correspondent

  • Published
Parisians light candles in memory of the victims of the 13 November 2015 Paris terror attacks at La Belle Equipe restaurant, one of the scenes of the attacks, France, 2021Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Every year since the attacks on the French capital in 2015, Parisians have remembered the victims with flowers and candles

They call themselves the "potages" - a mash-up of the French words for buddies and hostages.

A unique friendship group, forged in the shared experience of being caught up in France's worst peace-time attack six years ago, when Islamist jihadists killed 130 people at locations across Paris, including bars, restaurants, the national football stadium and the Bataclan concert hall.

Later on Wednesday, some of the potages will file into a specially built courtroom in Paris, to hear verdicts handed down to 20 men accused of involvement in those attacks in November 2015.

It is the end of a marathon nine-month process that has left its mark on France.

"The end of the trial is going to mark a new beginning," one of the potages, David Fritz Goeppinger, told me. "I'm not sure how to feel about it."

For him, the most important part of the trial was the testimony of hundreds of victims, including his own.

"For the first time, justice heard us [and] something shifted," he said. "I shared some details that I never shared in my book, or with my wife. I needed to share the entirety of what happened."

David, a photographer, was one of the last hostages to escape the Bataclan that night. He's spent most of the past year taking portraits of victims, police officers, even the former French president, François Hollande, as they turned up to testify at court.

"For me, it was very, very important not to be passive," he said. "As a victim, going through nine months of the trial, with all that psychological pain, I needed to take the bull by the horns."

Image source, David Fritz Goeppinger
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Arthur Dénouveaux (L) and Philippe Duperron both run groups for victims of the Paris attacks

One of the witnesses David photographed at court was his friend, Arthur Dénouveaux, who escaped from the Bataclan shortly after the gunmen entered, and now heads the victims support group Life for Paris.

"I feel relieved that the trial existed," Arthur told me. "I found some answers. But more than that, I feel a bit disgusted about November 13th, in a sense that we've gone into so much detail that now I'm not really interested in talking about it anymore - and I think that's the best part."

Where Paris attacks took place

As well as the victims themselves, David has taken portraits of defence lawyers, victims' lawyers, court reporters, expert witnesses, and a member of the band that was playing in the Bataclan on the night of the attacks.

The one group he has never asked to photograph is the defendants themselves.

The key defendant in this trial is Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the only surviving attacker from the night. Prosecutors have requested life in prison without parole for him, and two others.

"I had only ever seen him on TV and suddenly there he was, in real life," David said. "I remember telling myself, 'Oh, I'm bigger than him.'"

Image source, BENOIT PEYRUCQ/AFP
Image caption,
A court sketch shows Salah Abdeslam standing (far R) alongside the other 13 defendants in court this week

In his closing statement this week, Salah Abdeslam apologised to victims and said his thinking had "evolved" since he first stridently introduced himself to the court as a soldier for the so-called Islamic State group at the start of the trial.

"I made mistakes, it's true," he said in his closing remarks to the judges. "But I'm not a murderer, I'm not a killer - and if you convict me, you will be committing an injustice."

"It was very brutal, hearing [Salah Abdeslam] say to the court that he was a soldier [of Islamic State]," David said, "I thought about taking a picture of him, but I don't know if it's my place to do that. I can't be the victim and also the photographer."

The shift between observer and participant has sometimes been a difficult one for David.

Last October, the court played a previously unheard audio recording of one of three attackers inside the Bataclan concert hall.

"The first who gets up, I shoot. The first one who moves, I put a bullet in his head. Is that clear? Whoever tries to be a vigilante, I will kill him. Is that understood?"

The sound recorder was meant to capture the atmosphere of the concert. Instead, it recorded David's exchange with one of the gunmen as they took him and a dozen others hostage.

Hearing the recording in court "changed everything", David said. "Because [in that moment] it wasn't just me talking to the terrorist: justice was listening, and the court was listening. It created a tunnel from the Bataclan attack that night to today, and for me that was the most healing experience of all."

Getting the court to agree to play the tape was a months-long battle, led by his friend Arthur Dénouveaux.

Image caption,
David (L), seen here with Arthur Dénouveaux, says he has developed friendships from "something painful"

"We had psychiatrists saying, 'I'm not sure it's a good idea.' We had lawyers worrying about consequences. We had the court saying, 'maybe it'll be too traumatic'," Arthur told me. "And we were saying we can do this. We know what we want."

On the day the audio was played, Arthur says, more victims came to court than during Salah Abdeslam's testimony.

"It proved we were right," he says.

Of all the hundreds of portraits that David has taken throughout the trial, his favourite is a group shot of the potages. Seven men and women, who met as hostages, bundled into the upper corridors of the Bataclan, unsure whether they would ever make it out alive.

David himself is in the picture, on the far-left-hand side.

"The trial has brought home to me that the friendships I've grown in the last six years came from something painful," he said.

I ask how his life will be different once the trial is over, and the verdicts are out.

"Technically nothing will change," he told me. "But in our minds, we'll remember that we went through those nine months together. And for the first time, we'll know that we are not alone."