By Katie Leslie
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The night before I was scheduled to fly to France, on assignment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I popped by a local store to buy a new suitcase.
As I surveyed my options — debating between “how big is too big,” and “how heavy is too heavy” — a friendly woman asked me to where I was headed.
“Paris,” I told her, with some disbelief that within 36 hours, I’d be in the City of Light — a far cry from Atlanta City Hall, where I file most of my reports.
“Oh my,” she said, her eyebrows raised. “I hope you pack a gun.”
It’s not the response one normally receives when heading to a city that most Americans — heck, most people — associate with art, wine, the Eiffel Tower and romance. But following the Nov. 13 terror attacks, in which ISIS assailants murdered at least 130 people in a series of coordinated attacks across the city, Paris had taken on a new, more vulnerable identity. At least to some.
That’s what I was seeking to better understand as I boarded my flight, just a few weeks after the deadly events. While there, I met with several Georgians now living in France to ask them about life in a city rebuilding from violence, and whether or not ISIS had influenced or changed their reasons for being there.
My trip came as officials from across the globe gathered in Paris for international climate talks, negotiations that wrapped up just last weekend. The meeting drew several local public officials, such as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed; academics from Atlanta institutions, including Spelman and Emory; and environmental activists, like Savannah Miller, a senior at Emory.
The Georgians I met had differing takes on the events, views that you can read more about below, but all said the attacks hadn’t changed their long-term plans to be there. Nor did it dissuade many Atlantans from attending the climate talks.
The violence didn’t deter me, either, from what became one of my most memorable reporting experiences. My trip included seeing the makeshift memorials at the sites of the carnage. I visited the Bataclan Theater area with Erin Koval, from Roswell, and met Mason Hicks, also from Roswell, near the Place de la Republique. I traveled north of Paris to meet Alpharetta-native Katherine Youngblood, who lives near the Stade de France and heard the explosions of suicide bombers detonating their vests. I wandered the opulent and gilded halls of Hôtel de Ville, otherwise known as Paris City Hall, with Reed and Fairburn councilmember Hattie Portis-Jones during two days of climate-related meetings. I strolled the pop-up Christmas market along the Champs-Élysées, where I observed armed guards on patrol.
And then I returned to the United States, a country grappling with a mass shooting in San Bernardino that authorities are investigating as an act of terror at home.
By Katie Leslie
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
PARIS — Noël has come to one of the world’s most famous promenades, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
Twinkling stars adorn trees. Shops — from Guerlain to Tiffany & Co. — glitter with holiday decor. Parisians hawk hand-painted Eiffel Tower ornaments, mulled wine and cured meats as overhead speakers play “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” in French. Mixed in the festivities, however, are camouflaged soldiers with burgundy berets and high-powered guns.
It may be Christmas time, but the country remains in a state of emergency following violent attacks by the Islamic State three weeks ago. In other parts of city, memorials — not merriment — line Parisian avenues.
From her apartment, Katherine Youngblood, a 25-year-old Alpharetta native who moved to a northern Paris suburb a year and a half ago with her French boyfriend, has a full view of the stadium where suicide bombers detonated explosive vests. The couple live in the same predominantly Muslim community where authorities later conducted raids in search of terrorists who killed 130 people.
But like many of the Georgians living in Paris interviewed for this story, Youngblood says the killings and chaos in no way make her want to flee the world’s most intoxicating city. It’s important, she and others say, to keep perspective. While the attacks were tragic and shocking, they point out that mass violence doesn’t occur as often in France as the United States.
“Tragedies happen in the U.S. every day. Mass shootings don’t really happen in Paris,” Youngblood says, seated on her purple sofa, her nearby Christmas tree sparkling.
Her comments come just hours before a married couple is said to have opened fire on a social services center in San Bernardino, Calif. on Dec. 2, 2015, killing 14 people and wounding at least 21 more. The massacre, which is now being investigated as a possible act of terrorism, made headlines in Paris.
Mason Hicks, a 50-year-old former Atlantan, and his French wife moved their family here in 2009. The architect worked in one of the two Buckhead buildings terrorized by a day trader who shot and killed nine people on July 29, 1999. Hicks is shaken by the Paris attacks. But, he says, the situation back home is “pathetic.”
America far outpaces its French partner in homicide rates. France saw 777 homicides in 2013, a rate of about 1.2 per 100,000 people, according to statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. By comparison, the U.S. had 12,253 homicides that year, or 3.8 per 100,000.
While the Georgians contacted say they feel less vulnerable in France than they do in America, each had different takeaways about what the attacks in Paris mean for this city and their place in it.
It’s a heady time in this nation’s capital. France is at war, President Francois Hollande has announced. From the Bataclan theater and downtown cafes — and as far north as the Stade de France in Youngblood’s suburb of Saint-Denis — mounds of decaying roses, flickering candles and photos of young faces pay homage those murdered Nov. 13 in the name of the Islamic State.
As world leaders have come together in the city to conduct international climate talks, national leaders are grappling with how to balance an influx of refugees fleeing crisis in Syria with a desire for tighter border controls. Civil liberties, such as the right to assemble, have been banned for the time.
Still, the nouveaux Parisians seem to agree that life here is slowly returning to normal, even as they notice stepped-up security measures. They count higher numbers of police and military on the streets. They are aware of increased scrutiny of shoppers at retail centers. They note more drivers being asked to open the trunks of their cars before entering parking decks.
“People understand they’ll have to give up (some) of their liberties. After the attacks, I think it was fairly well understood,” says Claire Angelle, a French native who now lives in Atlanta and works as Mayor Kasim Reed’s international affairs director. She came back to her home country in recent weeks to visit with family and has remained through the climate summit with Reed.
She explains that yielding to government and military control is a change for the French, a people who pride themselves on liberty and their fiercely independent national identity.
“In France, we are chauvinistic and proud of our French culture,” Angelle says. “The police and Army have always been looked at with suspicion.”
Angelle believes those in uniform are now held in higher regard as the French adjust to a new reality.
Sara Tricarico, a 23-year-old Cumming native, says the horror of the killings have galvanized the French to come together in a way that makes her feel part of a broader community. She came to Paris only recently to work as an au pair, and says the reaction to the attacks strengthened her resolve to remain in the city she dreamed of as a child.
She loves her job, has made friends from around the world and is in the beginning of a relationship with a French boy. She has no intentions of returning home anytime soon.
“I know I’ve only been here four months, but it’s my town. I love it,” says Tricarico, a long-haired brunette who sips a café au lait on a patio. “I can’t imagine getting up and leaving after something that brought so many people together.”
Brandon Roddey — an ex-pat from Warner Robins who moved here several years ago to teach English — admits the recent violence has him thinking more deeply about his safety. He avoided public transportation for more than a week, he says. And he’s also heard grumblings from friends here that people are angry with the government for failing to tighten security following the January slaughter of several Charlie Hebdo journalists and a subsequent attack in a Kosher supermarket.
“You start wondering, who can you trust?” says Roddey, who now works at an oil and gas firm here. “It’s a big city, so you have to be on alert. But on an overall basis, people are more concerned about their security now than they were in the past.”
Roddey and many others, like Hicks, ponder the ramifications of the attacks on French politics.
France is holding regional elections on Sunday. Political tension here is high, and there’s concern that the violence will fuel support for the National Front, the far-right party that espouses anti-immigrant and nativist views.
“The political shift to the right is very much a force here,” says Hicks, a redhead who admits he misses Atlanta and homegrown favorites like Chick-fil-A. “The politics are not that different (than in America), fueled by racial and social issues.”
The men and others say the attacks have laid bare deep-seated hostility some of the French have toward many immigrants. The so-called outsiders, particularly those from North African countries, have been relegated to the fringes of Paris for decades, and effectively to the fringes of French society.
It’s an issue to which Erin Koval, who moved here from Roswell in 2008, is particularly attuned. The 30-year-old is in graduate school here and teaches French and other languages to immigrant children, some of whom came here as unaccompanied minors, she says. She’s concerned that decades of lack of inclusion and integration has exacerbated feelings of resentment and isolation.
“There’s a huge gap. It’s ‘us’ and ‘them,’” Koval says of the attitude toward groups of immigrants, a label used even for second and third generation children of foreigners.
While she feels included in French society as an American citizen, she recognizes that’s not a universal feeling for all immigrants. She loves France, she says, but, “I wish it would stop being an elitist culture and embrace its multi-culturalism.”
Just moments later, as Koval speaks with an American journalist near the Bataclan memorial, a middle-aged white man with a quilted coat and Nike sneakers approaches. “We speak French in France,” he admonishes, in his native tongue.
When Koval asks him why he is hostile, the man grumbles a curt response. A stunned Koval translates for a reporter. “He said, ‘Because we don’t like you.’”
This isn’t the Paris she’s known, she says. “I’ve never had anything like that happen to me.”
By Gracie Bonds Staples
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Moving about the City of Light with my sweet Jimmy last week, I couldn’t help but remember Ernest Hemingway.
Not the man himself. I am and always will be completely devoted to my husband of 30 years but the writer’s declaration that Paris is a “moveable feast” had taken hold of me and wouldn’t let go.
The constant sound of cars and foot traffic. Men and women munching on baguettes while marching down crowded streets or seated sipping wine along crowded sidewalks, cigarette smoke rising above them. And row upon row of magnificent, monumental architecture.
No matter how slow you move about, it takes your breath away.
Two days in I was simply in love.
Not even coming face-to-face with the Place de la Republique, the site of a memorial to victims of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks, each time we stepped from the Crown Plaza hotel, our temporary residence, or the constant news reports about Donald Trump’s latest gaffe could change that.
One night after strolling from one side of the city to the other, sleep refused to come to me. The majestic Champs-Elysees, picturesque Montmartre and popular Belleville still held sway over me, and all I could do was lay there and talk to God.
I felt so grateful and I wanted Him to know it.
As Jimmy slept peacefully beside me, I remembered meeting him 30 summers ago in Sacramento. Falling in love and marrying him just four days before Christmas in 1985 in the church where I’d clumsily recited Easter speeches as a child. The three moments when we found out we were pregnant. That horrible time we learned I’d miscarried. The birthdays and anniversaries. The deaths. The unexpected challenges. Three times packing up our home and unpacking in other places with more promises and greater challenges.
And I marveled at how each time we’d arrived on the other side of those challenges a little stronger, a little bit more determined, a lot more in love and appreciative of each other.
I knew what King David must have felt when he declared in the 23rd Psalm, my cup runneth over. In the words of my Antioch Baptist Church North family I was “sipping from my saucer ‘cause my cup had overflowed.”
I was happy that I hadn’t let fear keep me from experiencing God’s blessing as so many of us do.
All over Paris, I saw people, including visitors, as determined as I was not to live in fear. Not that I felt particularly brave; I just refuse to live my life in fear.
If Parisians could work through what happened there, if they could declare they wouldn’t live in fear, how could I not? Isn’t that what we did after 9/11?
I have no doubt that Parisians know their home may still be a target. You still can’t enter large venues without being frisked. Armed guards were still patrolling the area around the Eiffel Tower.
But if ISIS hoped to terrorize them into paralysis, it failed miserably.
I learned a long time ago that stuff happens and when it does you pick up the pieces and move on. I sensed the people here had somehow learned that, too.
As many as 129 people were killed and more than 350 were injured in the tragic events of Nov. 13 but none of it, as far as I could see, had destroyed residents’ will to live.
Just as Jimmy and I learned how to heal ourselves, it was clear to me that Paris, thank God, is trying to do the same.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, I was taken aback by how many friends and family members thought Jimmy and I had taken leave of our senses when they learned where we’d chosen to celebrate our anniversary.
But nothing and no one could have made us change or plans.
From what I saw last week, from what I felt moving from one side of the city to the other, Paris remains that “moveable feast” a young Hemingway once saw, and fear has no part in that.
Despite her recent wound, I sensed the City of Light returning to her old self where the love of all things beautiful seems to gravitate and will again.
I come home re-energized with renewed admiration for the current generation who occupy Paris. They are strong and resilient and remind us over and over: “we will always have Paris.”
Now Jimmy and I own a piece of her as well.