Former French President Testifies Because He 'Owes It' to Survivors of Paris Terror Attacks

Former French president François Hollande testified Wednesday in the trial of 14 men charged with carrying out the November 13, 2015, Islamic State attacks on Paris.

Hollande was at France's national soccer stadium when a suicide bomber started the first in a series of attacks across Paris by blowing himself up at the stadium gates.

The Associated Press reported that Hollande also testified that French officials knew that France could be a target and extremists were entering the country disguised as refugees. "But we did not know where, when, or how they would strike us," he said.

Hollande said that no one knew there would be an attack on that date, specifically, though they knew concert venues and sports stadiums would be possible targets.

"If you wanted to avoid all risk of attack you would have had to close every site, cancel every show. Is that what's expected of the president?" he asked.

Though all nine attackers died that night, the 14 men are accused of helping with logistics and transportation. The AP report cited Salah Abdeslam as the chief defendant, as he failed to detonate a bomb that night, got rid of the faulty explosives vest and fled home to Belgium.

Hollande said it was his responsibility to answer every question the lawyers asked him.

"I owe it to those who survived and who live every day in their flesh and in their minds the memory of this evening and who seek and demand explanations," Hollande said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Francios Hollande, Paris Attacks, trial
Former French President Francois Hollande was at France's national stadium when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the gates on November 13, 2015, the first in a series of attacks that would last three more hours across Paris. Wednesday, he testified in the trial of the 14 men responsible for the attacks who are still alive. Above, Hollande, center, arrives at the special courtroom in Paris. Michel Euler/AP Photo

The night of the attacks culminated with a bloody siege at the Bataclan concert hall. Hollande ordered the final assault on the three remaining attackers inside the Bataclan and shortly afterward asked to go to the site himself, watching survivors walk out.

"I see people leaving the Bataclan, even then, holding on to each other. They see me and cannot say a single word," he testified. "This will remain with me forever."

Hollande said he first learned there was an Islamic State cell dedicated to plotting attacks in Europe in June 2014, and first heard the name of Abdelhamid Abaaoud as its French-speaking operational leader in August 2015. He said authorities believed Abaaoud, a Belgian who spearheaded the Paris attacks and died in a police raid days later in the suburb of Saint-Denis, was in Syria heading up a Raqqa-based Islamic State cell to attack Europe.

On September 27, 2015, Hollande said, French airstrikes hit Raqqa for the first time, in large part to try and disrupt any plot. But by then Abaaoud was already on the way to Paris along with other Europeans in the cell.

With the attack still ongoing, Hollande declared a national state of emergency and attempted to close France's borders. But Abdeslam slipped out with the help of friends from Brussels, who drove through the night to fetch him and are now among those charged in Paris.

The same loose circle of Islamic State fighters later attacked the airport and metro in Brussels, days after Abdeslam was found at a hideout in Molenbeek, the neighborhood of the Belgian capital where he, Abaaoud and many of the other defendants grew up together.

Defense lawyers questioned French policy in Syria and Iraq. Hollande and the French government's airstrikes in Iraq and Syria were cited by name by the three French attackers inside the Bataclan, who killed 90 people. Civilian deaths were also cited by Abdeslam when he first spoke at the trial.

"The questions that I ask are not intended to legitimize the attacks," Abdeslam's lawyer, Olivia Ronen, said after a particularly tense exchange with the former president.

"This pseudo-state declared war with the weapons of war," Hollande said, when asked for the legal basis for carrying out airstrikes. As for the French and Belgian attackers who struck back against their homelands, Hollande said:

"Theirs was the school of barbarism. Happily, French schools aren't responsible and teach against such things. This wasn't religion but fanaticism and barbarism."

Paris, terror attacks, memorial
Seeing so much of the tragedy firsthand, former French president Francois Hollande said he felt he owed it to the victims of the Paris terror attacks to testify at the remaining attackers' trial. Above, people gathered in front of a makeshift memorial at the Place de la Republique in Paris on December 13, 2015, a month after the attacks that claimed 130 lives. Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

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