France ‘did everything it could’ to foil terror attacks, Hollande tells court

Ex-president tells trial the government had no prior warning of Paris 2015 attacks

The former French president François Hollande has told a Paris court that authorities “did everything we could” to prevent terrorist attacks on the country – including launching military strikes on jihadist training camps in Syria and Iraq – but the government did not have information that could have stopped the 2015 Paris terror attacks.

“If I had the slightest doubt on what we had done, I would tell you, say sorry and ask for forgiveness,” Hollande said. “But that is not my approach. I understand the suffering of the victims. I am trying in my answers [to the court] to give confirmation that everything was done.”

Hollande appeared in court on Thursday to testify at France’s biggest ever criminal trial over the attacks by Islamic State on 13 November 2015, which killed 130 people and injured more than 400 in synchronised suicide bombings and mass shootings across the French capital.

The killing began at about 9pm that Friday night, when a suicide bomber blew himself up after failing to get into the Stade de France for a France v Germany friendly football match, which Hollande was attending. Then came drive-by shootings and suicide bombings at cafes and restaurants. Finally, three gunmen entered the Bataclan during an Eagles of Death Metal gig, killing 90 people.

There has been anger from some victims’ families that a jihadist commando was able to evade detection while preparing the biggest atrocities seen on French soil since the second world war.

Hollande insisted that the intelligence services had “done all they could” to “identify and neutralise” threats.

French officials had known for months that the country could be a target, Hollande told the court. He said it was even known that IS extremists were entering disguised as refugees. “But we did not know where, when or how they would strike us,” he added.

All nine gunmen died, either shot by police or by blowing themselves up. A total of 20 men are on trial accused of providing planning and logistical support. Six will be tried in their absence; five are presumed dead in Iraq or Syria and one is in prison in Turkey. The chief defendant in the trial is Salah Abdeslam, who is alleged to have been part of the team of attackers but discarded a malfunctioning explosive vest and fled home to Belgium.

During the attack on the Bataclan gig, gunmen had shouted that it was Hollande’s fault and that they were seeking revenge for France’s airstrikes on Syria.

Hollande dismissed the attackers’ speeches about him as “a text learnt by heart, a kind of signature, as if the people who ordered the attacks had said that was the message that should be given”.

He said he didn’t believe the attackers had struck France because of French military intervention. “This group struck us not for our actions abroad, but for our ways of life at home,” he said. “Democracy will always be stronger than barbarism.”

Hollande said he stood firmly by French military intervention in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015, saying: “The biggest victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslims.”

He described being within earshot of the first explosion, when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the gates of the national stadium.

Hollande said: “When the first explosion sounded, and a player stopped, surprised, I realised that it could be an attack. When the second explosion went off, I no longer had any doubts.”

He said he had left his seat to consult with security officials and decided the match should continue and “everything should be done to avoid panic”. He told a German government minister and the head of the French parliament, who were present, to stay in their seats. He went to the interior ministry to coordinate the response.

Later that night he decided to go to the Bataclan himself, watching bloodied survivors walk out after an ordeal that had lasted two hours. “I saw people leaving the Bataclan, even then, holding on to each other. They saw me and could not say a single word,” he testified. “That will remain with me for ever.”

Contributor

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

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