Since the attacks two weeks ago, I’ve been avoiding supermarkets — which seem like potential targets — and doing most of my shopping at a minimarket. The cashier there, a young man from Mali, keeps telling me not to be afraid.
“They’re not going to make me change my life,” he said of the attackers. “I’ll go wherever I want.”
I’ve been getting this lecture all the time. “You cannot be afraid, Madame,” said the lady who runs one of my daughter’s extracurricular activities, when we didn’t show up soon after the attacks.
In Paris these days, it’s not chic to admit that you’re terrified. Almost immediately after the shootings, signs and hashtags appeared saying “même pas peur” — a kind of playground chant meaning “you don’t scare me.”
“We must show these assassins that we’re not afraid, that we’re continuing to live,” said the 72-year-old crooner Johnny Hallyday, known as the French Elvis. He added: “If I weren’t a singer, I would take up arms and go fight them.”
Cafes are full — or half full — of Parisians proving that the terrorists haven’t won.
The French prime minister tweeted the Friday before last,“Tonight, true to themselves, the people of Paris are at outdoor cafes, and they don’t give in,” adding the hashtag #Parisisaparty.
I find it hard to join this cult of fearlessness. How could you not be afraid? Every time I pass a cafe, I imagine it being stormed by men with Kalashnikovs. I walk around Paris feeling a blend of vertigo and dread.
I’m not the only one who feels this way, of course. Parisians won’t admit that they go to the gym, let alone that they’re scared of terrorists. In New York, you’re encouraged to be confessional and neurotic; in Paris you’re supposed to be implacable and discreet.
This calm may also be partly pharmaceutical. Even before the attacks, nearly a third of the French population took anti-anxiety pills or similar medications, either regularly or on occasion. (The attackers were apparently taking an amphetamine called Captagon, which makes you feel all-powerful and fearless.)
There are cracks in France’s fearless facade. The national producers’ union estimated that ticket sales for concerts and some other shows in Paris were down 80 percent. It’s suddenly easy to arrange indoor play dates for kids; many families no longer spend weekends at parks or museums. A friend confessed to me while dropping off her daughter that she had been having moments of “disintegration.”
The fear isn’t confined to Paris. Local newspapers across France have been profiling the victims from their regions. A recent article in Le Monde said that, ahead of next month’s regional elections, political meetings around the country have become informal group-therapy sessions, with party activists discussing their anxiety about safety.
The famous French pessimism about the future has been replaced by a “fear of the present,” the article said. While the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January were mostly aimed at journalists, there’s a sense now that anyone could be a target. By late this week, there seemed to be fewer cries of “même pas peur.”
I’m not brave in the best of times. Maybe I’m especially spooked now because — until recently — I spent my workdays in cafes, where you can sit for hours for the price of a single espresso. Around my neighborhood, I’m known as the American who talks to her computer while she types. The few times I’ve done this since the attacks, I’ve spent most of the time wondering whether my laptop would deflect a bullet.
Some foreigners I know are taking solace in statistics: Even after the attacks, the Paris region has fewer murders than New York City. “I’m from Alabama,” a musician I know said. “Why would I be afraid of this?”
Others have retreated into a kind of informed superstition: I’ve been told, variously, that the Metro is safe, but not the commuter train; that Paris is safer than ever for the next six months, while the terrorists regroup; and that restaurants are safe as long as they don’t have outdoor seating.
The most helpful thing I’ve read was a children’s newspaper that explained how to be “stronger than the fear.” A child psychiatrist suggested writing down what you’re afraid of to get some distance from it. “It’s as if you’re putting the fear next to you,” he explained. “You’ll see it more clearly.”
A trauma specialist told me it helps to do something constructive; I’ve signed up for a first-aid course, which is a start. I guess we’re all supposed to get used to living in a more dangerous world. A friend told me she woke up one morning a few days ago and just said, using a slightly stronger word, “Screw it, I’m not going to be afraid anymore.”
I’ll give that a try tomorrow.
Pamela Druckerman is an author and a contributing opinion writer.