It has taken more than four years to gather all the evidence for the biggest trial in French history.
ast week, as proceedings opened in the trial of 20 men accused of involvement in the Paris terror attacks of 2015, the deadliest act of terrorism the country has ever seen, the event was heavy with symbolism. A brand new courtroom has been custom-built to receive the record-breaking 1,800 plaintiffs and their collective 300-strong legal team, representing the exceptional nature of the trial — a new leaf in the history book of French jurisprudence. Significantly, the new courtroom was constructed at the heart of the Paris Palais de Justice, an architectural emblem of the nation’s democracy and rule of law.
The stakes for this trial are different from any other criminal trial that has gone before. It will be the longest in France’s history, with hearings expected to last nine months. An unprecedented five weeks have been specifically dedicated to hearing the testimony of the victims.
But what is most radical about this legal event is the scope of what it aims to achieve. It is about so much more than simply establishing innocence or guilt. In most people’s minds, that is an issue that is already settled.
Key defendant Salah Abdeslam has already been convicted of attempted murder in his native Belgium. Of the 20 on trial, he is the only one who stands accused of direct involvement in the attack. Many of his co-defendants are dead, either killed as they carried out suicide attacks or by police in their desperate attempts to restore order to Parisian streets. Others thought to be hiding in Syria or presumed dead will be tried in absentia.
The purpose of this trial is not just simply a legal process but a therapeutic one. For the 1,800 people who have been directly identified as victims of the attacks, for the thousands of others who were first-hand witnesses. But it will also be a therapeutic process for France as a whole, whose collective experience of the events of November 2015 is comparable to that of Americans after 9/11 — an assault on their most treasured values, by which they remain deeply scarred.
According to Georges Fenech, the politician who led the parliamentary inquiry into the 2015 attacks: “In France, there was a before and after November 13, 2015, just like in the United States there was a before and after September 11.”
Could this be the trial that brings the previously niche concept of therapeutic jurisprudence into the legal mainstream? The term refers to a concept developed in the academic circles of criminology and psychology concerned with the extent to which the legal process can have an important and measurable positive impact on the mental health of victims.
It hasn’t been named explicitly as part of the remit of the Paris trial, but former Paris prosecutor François Molins, who was in office in 2015, came close when he said last week the trial carried a significance over and above simply following due process and holding the accused to account.
“The trial must fulfil several objectives, the first of which is revealing the truth of what happened,” he added. “It should help the victims in their healing process by having a cathartic effect. It will also be an occasion to remind us of our society’s values of humanity and dignity, which stands in stark contrast to those espoused by the Islamist terrorists.”
And one of the survivors, Theresa Cede, who lost her partner in the attack, said: “The trial is an important step. It has to be gone through. I am not sure it will bring closure or solace. But it is part of the process.”
Meanwhile Sharon Weill, a law professor from the American University of Paris who specialises in terrorism, described it as being “a mixture of a criminal trial and a sort of truth commission to establish the narrative and collective memory”.
According to the psychiatrist Bruce D Perry, a world leader in trauma, at the centre of the damaging experience of trauma is a loss of power and control. The victim loses agency in a manner that is unexpected, leaving them in a state of hypervigilance to threat. One of the ways to assist in healing after a traumatic experience is to hand them back a sense of control in a managed, ordered way.
Victims of the Paris attacks don’t expect to be healed by the process of the trial. Nor should they, as due process can only go so far. But the opportunity to relive the experience, in a carefully controlled, sympathetic and respectful context of a trial set up with the express purpose of helping them recover holds the potential to go a long way to easing their pain.
France’s trial of century designed to ease a nation’s deep trauma