The healing inside Paris’s Jewish community goes on. Two months after the deadly hostage crisis that killed four Jews at the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, the store has re-opened, a symbolic moment of perseverance and defiance of terror.
Laurent Mimoun, 49, a co-director of the Hyper Cacher family group, said he had no choice but to re-open the kosher supermarket. ‘We’re here to rebuild everything that is material, knowing that we can’t rebuild lives,’ he said. ‘But we have to do it. We cannot abandon this place, or sell it and let it become something else. It’s important that it returns to what it was, in order to affirm life.’
The store, one of 11 in France, welcomed a large crowd of politicians, shoppers, Jewish community leaders and the families of the victims at the re-opening, conducted under heavy police surveillance. Both the inside and outside have been completely refurbished, including a fresh white exterior in place of the old black. ‘To try to bring back some joy,’ Mimoun explained.
Keeping kosher, which requires abstaining from certain foods, only eating meats killed in accordance with Jewish law and taking care to prepare foods in a certain way, such as using separate pans for dairy and meat products, remains an important part of religious life for many Jews in Paris and the Hyper Cacher is a popular place for kosher shopping.
Audrey Mayer, a representative of the Holocaust Memorial foundation based in Paris, said: ‘I’m not sure if it’s a majority but certainly a large part of the Jewish community here eats kosher. There are many more Jews eating kosher compared to 20 years ago. People are more and more observant, at least in France. It’s also true that more and more young couples are respecting the rules of Kashrut (the body of Jewish law concerning permissible foods and cooking) after they get married.’
Samuel Khalifa, a professor at Sciences Po and prominent member of the Jewish community, said eating kosher remains a strong part of their religious identity and its value is both symbolic and traditional. ‘Outside of Israel, Jewishness and modernity have responded well in upholding this tradition,’ he said.
‘It can be difficult if you don’t have a kosher supermarket nearby,’ says Kevin Hagege, head of the SDT, a charity that promotes the spread of the Torah in France. ‘But it’s definitely possible in France, and especially in Paris. I think more and more Jews are eating kosher. I’d say it’s about one in two.’
Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s Interior Minister, was one of the first inside the shop after its re-opening and said it was important to pay respect to the memory of those who ‘fell under the fire of barbarity’. For him, the re-opening was an affirmation that ‘life is stronger than everything else’.
Phillippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab and Francois-Michel Saada were all shot dead by Islamic extremist Amédy Coulibaly at Hyper Cacher two days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Coulibaly was killed in the firefight that ended the siege.
The message and mood of these shoppers who’d come for the re-opening was one of solidarity, saying that life must go on.
A lawyer and a friend of Yohan Cohen, Ichaî Gourno, 22, said he was happy that the store had re-opened because it meant life was returning to normal. ‘We’ve turned a page,’ he said. ‘But at the same time, when I walked into the shop, I felt a sense of sadness because I couldn’t walk through the aisles without remembering that only months ago there were corpses lying here.’
Alain Pages, 65, who is not Jewish and was amongst the first customers, said: ‘I don’t usually shop here but I came specifically to show solidarity. We must show we’re not scared.’
Maurice, 32, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, ‘It feels bizarre to be back here. The layout has changed, products have moved. But I came to show solidarity, to show that life continues.’
The Hyper Cacher store is being manned by a new set of employees because all of the workers involved in the hostage crisis are on sick leave. ‘They are traumatised,’ Mimoun said, ‘and the majority won’t come back.’
Malian hero Lassana Bathily, 24, who had worked at Hyper Cacher for four years and was granted French citizenship after hiding customers in a cold store during the siege, said in a private Facebook message that he was really happy that the store had re-opened but hadn’t yet decided if he’d like to return there to work.
Speaking about Bathily, Mimoun said: ‘He is a symbol of what French society commemorates, an integrated citizen. He represents everything the politicians want. A man of colour, a Muslim who works for Jews and a man who loves France.’
Mimoun said he had seen an overwhelming response from new applicants wishing to work in the store. ‘They applied almost instantly. It’s been very comforting to see all these young people arrive with their smiles and energy,’ he said.
One of the new employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she’d sent her CV into the Hyper Cacher group because she was looking for a job and she wasn’t scared of working in the refurbished store. She was among the staff rushing to stack shelves and price products as the scrum of initial shoppers descended on the supermarket.
Mimoun, who is a close friend of the Hattab family, said he had been touched by the response of his insurers, Allianz France, who covered the costs of the refurbishment and the store’s lost revenues. ‘They’ve gone above and beyond what they needed to do. They have covered everything financially but they’ve also kept in touch, asked for news, taken the time of day to ask how things are going.’ Allianz France has said that several hundred thousand euros have been paid in insurance to Hyper Cacher.
Responding to the challenges of radicalisation and antisemitism following the attacks continues to be an important issue in France. Paris’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, used the store’s re-opening as an opportunity to call for further political initiatives.
‘We need to launch programmes in our schools that fight against antisemitism and racism,’ she said. ‘We need to protect the young people who are attracted by this logic of death, this logic of killing, that silences our democracy.’
Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced related measures in January aiming to tackle the problem, such as more civic and ethics education in schools and extra teacher training concerning France’s secular tradition.
For the victims’ families, however, despite life returning to normal at the store, the emotional wounds remain raw. Eric Cohen, father of Yohan Cohen, spoke tearfully outside the Hyper Cacher at the re-opening, saying that he ‘hoped the lives [of those responsible] would be broken in the same way that our lives have been broken.’
Standing amidst tributes of wilting flowers to the deceased and placards commemorating other recent deaths of Jews in France, such as the victims of Mohammed Merah’s massacre in Toulouse in 2012, Joel Mergui, the President of the Israeli Council of Paris, sounded a note of caution.
‘French society failed to see the signs three years ago after the Toulouse and Montauban attacks,’ he said. ‘It was just like Charlie Hebdo. But the measures that have been taken since are insufficient. France hasn’t taken enough notice of the profound evil lurking in our society.’
On the question of security, all of the Hyper Cacher stores are covered by the ‘Vigipirate’ security plan, France’s terror alert system, and hence will remain under heightened police protection. Mimoun sees the security as a necessary response but described it as worrying. ‘It’s frightening for [our] kids to have to say ‘Good morning’ every day to soldiers,’ he said.
Top photograph: AFP