Chris Waldron was in the City of Light on Sept. 11, 2001, when two planes flew into New York City’s World Trade Center buildings. They had once towered near the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from France to the U.S., symbolizing the nations' kinship for over a century. As Waldron and her future husband stood in a Paris square, strangers who picked up on their American accents approached them and offered condolences.
“They were saying, ‘We’re with you,’” remembered Waldron, a 57-year-old San Francisco resident, who visits Paris frequently and most recently visited Paris five weeks ago for her honeymoon. When attacks rang out across the French capital last Friday, leaving at least 129 people dead and over 350 injured, friends of Waldron mistakenly assumed she was glad she wasn’t in Paris. “I wish I had been there. I feel like I want to be there for them in whatever way I can,” she said.
She is not alone. Americans struggling to find ways to show solidarity with the French in the wake of last week’s attacks have moved beyond changing social media profile pictures and sending tweets. Some were supporting French cultural institutions and attending local events to honor victims. They said the goal was to show Parisians and other French people that they haven't forgotten the support they received when terror struck in the U.S. more than a decade ago.
Waldron, who works in patient relations at a San Francisco medical center, found a somewhat atypical way to show her support for the people of Paris. On Monday, she donated 30 Euros to Claire Waddington, a resident of Paris for nearly two decades who gives free virtual tours of the city through the streaming smartphone app, Periscope.
“I haven’t even checked my donations" said Waddington, referring to the GoFundMe account she set up months ago to raise money for data fees accrued through her streaming app. After the attacks, the number of simultaneous Periscope viewers quintupled to about 1,500, many of them from the U.S.
“Everyone had been so worried about me, wondering if I was alive or dead and that's when I noticed the numbers,” Waddington said Tuesday from Paris. “I did not expect this, no, but I understand.”
It had been about 48 hours after the attacks when flowers and visitors started arriving at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City. People who came in expressed bewilderment at why teams of purported Islamic State followers would take innocent lives at a soccer stadium, a concert hall and other public areas around Paris, said institute president Marie-Monique Steckel.
“Unlike the attack on Charlie Hebdo, which was certainly motivated by the [Prophet Muhammad] caricature, there was no motive here,” Steckel said in an interview Tuesday, comparing the January attack by Islamic extremists on a satirical magazine that frequently lampooned Muslims to last week’s violence. “It was just an attempt to destroy a lifestyle and what we stand for.”
Since Friday, about a dozen people purchased memberships to the Manhattan-based cultural center, which screens Francophone films and hosts talks about the French arts. Until they run out, the Alliance Française will hand out free “Je Suis Paris” buttons to visitors who come in to express their solidarity, Steckel said.
The French-U.S. relationship has had its ups and down, mostly related to geopolitical and diplomatic disagreements between leaders. The most recent rough patch came after France opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. Some U.S. politicians fanned existing Francophobic views by attempting to rename “French fries” to “freedom fries.” But that name change never stuck, as the Iraq war lost favor with the majority of the American public.
As a display of solidarity I will return to calling them "French Fries". #JeSuisParis
— Erick Banks (@FakeErick) November 17, 2015
France was among the first global powers to stand in solidarity with the U.S. following the attack in New York City and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001. Former President Jacques Chirac was the first foreign leader to meet with President George W. Bush in the wake of the attacks, according to Time Magazine. In 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, a massive U.S. flag was unfurled in Trocadero Square where the Eiffel Tower stands.
Major building and landmarks throughout the U.S. showed solidarity with Paris over the weekend by lighting up their edifices with the colors of the French flag. San Francisco’s City Hall, the new World Trade Center town in New York, and McKay Tower in Grand Rapids, Michigan, among many others, displayed the colors.
Several colleges and universities had also shown their support since Friday. Student members of a French society at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, organized a vigil Monday for the victims of the attacks. “It was nice to see students, faculty, and administrators come together and have a moment to reflect on the tragedies around the world,” student Yamini Bhandari told the Cornell Daily Sun. “It gave me a sense of hope that we all could agree that actions like these terrorist attacks were inhumane and Cornell stood for peace.”
In San Francisco, Waldron said she passed by a vigil that was held in the city over the weekend. But her connection with Waddington, the Periscope user in Paris, “is keeping me in touch more directly than anybody can who is reporting news,” Waldron said.