When the Eagles of Death Metal played to a packed audience at the Bataclan on Friday November 13, Matthieu Giroud was probably at the back.
The 38-year-old up-and-coming academic was known for keeping a low profile. Though credited with a talent and charisma that might have made him the frontman of a rock band in his younger days, he was comfortable playing the bass.
On the football field he was a No 10 – not a star striker, rather a play-maker.
“He was the one who thought it through and moved the ball,” says long-time friend and history teacher at Paris VIII University, Sylvain Pattieu.
“He kept things cool. He had a magnetic softness.”
A softness that no doubt grew as Matthieu and Aurelie Silvestre doted over their three-year-old son Gary and looked forward to the birth of a baby girl in March.
Silvestre told Canal Plus, the French TV channel, that they occasionally took stock of how fortunate they were. “We would say, it’s crazy this life of ours, because we’re happy, we love each other, we live in a nice flat, we have a great family – we now have a boy and we’ll soon have a girl,” she recalled. “We can go on vacation when we want, and we were thinking: we’re just too lucky.”
Then, two weeks ago, attackers stormed the Bataclan, wearing suicide vests and carrying assault rifles. Friday night revelries were suddenly turned into a scene of slaughter.
When Matthieu didn’t return home, Aurelie called around – first friends, then hospitals – with growing dread. It was almost two days before she received confirmation that Matthieu was among the 90 killed at the concert hall. In all, 130 people were massacred in coordinated attacks across Paris that night.
Aurelie is five months pregnant and is now faced with raising two children alone.
Today, as France holds a national tribute to the victims at military museum Les Invalides, funerals continue up and down the country.
More than 800 people paid their respects to Matthieu Giroud in his home town of Jarrie, near Grenoble, last week, and additional funeral services have been held since.
“He loved his friends, and there were a lot of them,” Fabienne Silvestre-Bertoncini wrote in a homily to her brother-in-law, adding that he was a big fan of rock, Japanese whisky and football.
Matthieu was a paradoxical character: a small-town boy who became a bourgeois Parisian; low-key but popular; a serious academic who read comic books; a showman at the back of the stage.
Since leaving his home in the Alps more than a decade and a half ago, he had begun to make a name for himself.
In 2008, he won the French National Geographic Committee prize for his doctoral thesis on how residents in working-class neighbourhoods resist rapid urban change.
It was the start of Matthieu’s body of research into the effect of urban planning on the vulnerable, including the poor and the physically disabled. He went on to write about the unequal distribution of urban space and the dangers of gentrification.
Jean-Baptiste Grison, a former colleague at Universite Blaise Pascal, in Clermont-Ferrand, central France, praised his “seriousness and rigour”, adding that he was a “humane geographer” in the French tradition of l’intellectuel engage – the socially engaged intellectual.
“For him what was central, what he wanted to understand, was the city, its evolution and the injustices that it could create for the people living there,” says Hadrien Dubucs, a Sorbonne geographer and friend. “There was an obvious continuity between the man that he was, his convictions and what he committed to.”
Matthieu provided courses and tutoring to homeless young people and families living in shelters and squats.
Students posting messages on Facebook tribute pages praised him for taking the time to talk one-on-one. Several credited him with sparking their interest in urban geography.
But if Matthieu was beginning to make waves in a burgeoning field, he remained an unassuming assistant professor, latterly at Paris-East University.
“He was very modest,” says his mother Michelle, who with her husband Francois, has come to Paris to bring Matthieu’s body back home. “All of the tributes being made, we understand, but it wouldn’t have suited him, because he never wanted to be front stage, in spite of his talent.”
Pattieu says that his old friend liked to go to rock concerts alone, to stand at the back, take in the music and observe other people.
“I think this article, focused on him, would have made him uncomfortable,” says Pattieu. “I’m sure he would say, ‘Why me? There are so many others.'”