PARIS — France began revisiting one of the worst chapters in its modern history on Wednesday, as a landmark trial opened in Paris for the January 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 17 people in and around the French capital.
Over at least the next two months, before the glare of the world’s media and under tight security, the court is expected to meticulously examine three harrowing days that traumatized France, starting with a daytime assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that Islamic extremists targeted after it published cartoons lampooning Islam.
The killings were followed by a string of deadly jihadist attacks, culminating with assaults in November that year in and around Paris that killed 130 people, vaulting France into a yearslong state of emergency.
Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the two brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack, died in a shootout with the police north of Paris two days later. A third attacker, Amédy Coulibaly, killed a police officer in a Parisian suburb and four Jewish hostages at a kosher supermarket before dying himself when the police stormed the building.
With all the central assailants dead, the current trial will be more cathartic than revelatory for a country forced by the events to reckon with the threat of homegrown terrorism, permanently altering its balance between security and civil liberty.
Those on trial, who range in age from 29 to 68, are charged with providing logistical aid to the assailants by carrying or supplying cash, weapons and vehicles. Most of the accused are facing up to 20 years in prison.
The court is expected to hear testimony from some 150 witnesses, and, in a first for a terrorism case, the proceedings will be filmed for posterity. “For them, for us, for history,” the daily Libération wrote on a black front page on Wednesday.
“From a collective point of view, you need a trial to say that this sequence of events is closed and is now in the past,” said Gérôme Truc, a sociologist who has worked extensively on the way countries have reacted to and commemorated terrorist attacks. “Society can move on.”
But as the trial closes one chapter, it will open another. In the years to come, several major terrorism cases are expected to come to trial in France, including over the November 2015 attacks in Paris and one in Nice in July 2016, with a record number of defendants and plaintiffs — and often without the perpetrators.
“In a sense, it will be a sort of a big rehearsal,” Antoine Mégie, an expert on counterterrorism legislation, said of the trial that began on Wednesday.
Thirteen men and one woman stand accused in the trial, which was postponed from the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. Under French law, terrorism cases are tried by professional magistrates, not juries, and some 200 plaintiffs have joined the case.
“We want to fill this courtroom with what our clients went through,” Patrick Klugman, a lawyer for surviving hostages at the kosher supermarket, told reporters at the courthouse on Wednesday, adding that he also wanted to renew the focus on the anti-Semitic nature of the killings.
Reporters mobbed lawyers with television cameras and microphones at the courthouse, quickly filling up several rooms that have been set aside to rebroadcast the proceedings, although the first day of the trial is expected to be purely procedural. Security at the courthouse was tight, with the police blocking off neighboring streets, checking IDs and making rounds with bomb-sniffing dogs.
Everyone — including the suspects who were brought handcuffed into the main courtroom by police officers wearing black balaclavas — had a mask strapped across their face.
French law usually bars cameras from courtrooms, and the filming of the proceedings signals the trial’s importance for the authorities.
Only a few trials have been filmed over the past three decades for historical and archival purposes — often in cases involving crimes against humanity, like for Klaus Barbie, the former Nazi Gestapo chief in Lyon, or Pascal Simbikangwa, a former Rwandan intelligence officer accused of genocide.
Those who are standing trial are linked almost exclusively to Mr. Coulibaly, some as former prison mates or childhood friends. Some defendants have admitted that they helped Mr. Coulibaly buy weapons or gear, or cars that were then resold for cash, but say they had no idea he was preparing a killing spree.
But investigations into the Kouachi brothers — who left few traces and kept communication outside of their families to a minimum — failed to uncover any direct accomplices or to trace their weapons, the presiding judge noted in an oral summary of the case on Wednesday.
Critical alleged accomplices, as well as the main perpetrators, are missing from the trial.
Among the suspected accomplices is Hayat Boumeddiene, Mr. Coulibaly’s partner at the time, who is thought to have been closely involved in the plot and who was touted by Islamic State propaganda. Also missing are two brothers who helped Ms. Boumeddiene leave France for Syria shortly before the attacks.
The brothers, Mehdi Belhoucine and Mohamed Belhoucine, are thought to have died in Syria and Iraq, but the French authorities believe Ms. Boumeddiene could be alive and in hiding. All three will be tried in absentia.
Mohamed Belhoucine and another man, Ali Riza Polat — who is present at the trial — are accused of more direct involvement in inspiring and preparing the attacks. They face serious charges of complicity in the crimes, which carry a life sentence.
François Molins, the Paris prosecutor at the time of the attacks, said the absence of main suspects might frustrate victims seeking answers. He said the trial would nonetheless shine a light on remaining gray areas, including how the attacks were prepared and whether more were planned.
At the time, the Kouachi brothers said they were carrying out the attack in the name of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, while Mr. Coulibaly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, but it remains unclear who might have directly ordered the attacks.
“The challenge, whether the main perpetrators are there or not, is to make it possible to understand what happened, how it happened and why it happened,” said Mr. Molins, who is now the chief prosecutor at the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest judicial court.
In the days after the attacks, millions of people poured into streets around the country to demonstrate against Islamic extremism and show support for freedom of expression, rallying around the slogan #JeSuisCharlie — I am Charlie. “Still Charlie,” Jean Castex, the French prime minister, tweeted on Wednesday.
But the attacks also set off debates — many of them unresolved — over secularism, freedom of expression, and the integration of France’s Muslim minority.
Charlie Hebdo, true to character, defiantly reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on its front page for the first day of the trial, explaining in an editorial that the drawings had “historical value” and were “pieces of evidence” that needed to be remembered.
“We will never back down,” Laurent Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial director, wrote in a separate piece, arguing that the “hatred” from the 2015 attacks was still present. “We will never give up.”
Philippe Lançon, a survivor of the Charlie Hebdo massacre who wrote a gripping account of the attack and its aftermath, wrote in Wednesday’s issue that “the trial that begins is a necessary, symbolic and limited social ceremony.”
“And also, for some of us, a consolation ritual,” he added.
François Hollande, president of France at the time of the attacks, told France 2 television last week that he had been “afraid” that French society was going to “dislocate” afterward, “because that was what the terrorists intended: to divide the French.”
“They lost,” Mr. Hollande said of the attackers, calling the unity and resilience shown after the attacks “admirable.”
But more than 8,000 people in France are still flagged for extremist Islamist radicalization by intelligence services, according to the authorities, which are closely watching the growing number of inmates incarcerated for terrorism-related offenses who are set to be released in the coming months and years.
There have been no large-scale assaults since 2016, but there have been occasional attacks like a shooting at a Christmas market in Strasbourg in 2018, or a stabbing attack at the Paris police headquarters last year.
“We must maintain the utmost vigilance, even if the French have shifted their concern to the health crisis, economic worries, and daily insecurity,” Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said on Monday in a speech at the headquarters of France’s domestic intelligence agency. He added that the terrorist threat level was still “extremely high.”