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French expatriates react to terror strikes in their homeland

The two young women stood outside the Back Bay office building, white roses in their hands, tears in their eyes.

They had come Friday night to the French Consulate -- the consulate of their homeland.

Nina Goldstein and Gabrielle Larnaudie-Giffel, both 20, are Parisian students visiting Boston from Concordia University in Montreal. They came to the consulate after hearing news about a series of attacks that rocked Paris, leaving scores of dead and a spasm of terror behind.

Goldstein said they have seen shows at the Bataclan music venue, where attackers took hostages and dozens were killed.

"It's crazy," Larnaudie-Giffel said. "I've always felt safe in Paris."

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The two women had heard from their families in Paris, and were "happy to know that they are safe," Larnaudie-Giffel said.

Goldstein compared the attacks to the massacre at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people in January.

"Since Charlie Hebdo, which was quite disturbing for French people ... we don't know what to think about the situation," she said.

"It's quite a lot in such a short time," Larnaudie-Giffel added.

She also said she wasn't sure "how a big country like France, a quiet country, a powerful country, a country of freedom, could be destroyed like that."

Alexandre Palagi, 26, of Brookline is from Cannes, France, and stopped by to pay his respects at the consulate Friday evening. He reflected on the moment of sheer panic and concern for his friends and family when he heard the news.

"You don't have any words to define the feeling you get," Palagi said. "You just feel immensely sad and angry at the same time. And also powerless because I'm on the other side of the ocean and what can I do besides just try to reach my friends and family?"

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Palagi added that one of his friends was on the same street as one of the attacks.

"She managed to escape but she is sending me horrible stories [of] what happened tonight," he said.

Sylvain Bruni, 34, is a counselor advisor for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. He said his job as an elected official is to represent French people in New England, and he came to the consulate Friday evening to meet with other grieving people from his country.

He found the attacks difficult to comprehend, his mind flashing back to recent terror attacks.

"Multiple sites at once, so many different people, the hostage situation with so many different people is just horrifying. All the memories from January came back, also the memories from the [Boston] Marathon ... so that was tough."

Bruni said that the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices had left Paris residents wondering when the next act of terrorism would hit their city.

"I can't really imagine what you guys went through on 9/11," said Vincent Benetreau, a 22-year-old Newbury College student from Paris.

"It puts things in perspective, you know what I mean? It's one thing to know that it happened somewhere in the world, and you still feel empathy ... it's horrible," he said. "When it happens in your country, it puts things in perspective, you know what I mean? It gets to you. It actually gets to you."

David Leung, 44, of Arlington, brought flowers to the consulate to commemorate the lives lost.

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"After 9/11, France reached out [to the United States] and some of us remembered the goodwill," Leung said, "and I think it's time we showed our support."

News of the attacks ricocheted across Greater Boston, especially in the haunts of French expatriates.

At the gourmet food shop MA-France in Lexington, the customers, mostly French themselves, left when they heard the news, rushing to their televisions for the latest updates and trying to reach relatives in France. Francois Attard, who opened the shop in 2013, said everyone there knew at least one person in Paris.

Attard and his wife Cecile moved from France two years ago. Attard said he has three cousins and an aunt who live in the center of Paris. His initial attempts to reach them just before 6:30 p.m. were unsuccessful.

"I tried to call, but Paris is very busy," Attard said. "So I sent a message, and I'm going to wait for them to answer."

Cecile Attard was able to reach her mother via a video chat connection. Attard said his mother-in-law was in a secure location but did not know much about what was happening outside.

"They closed everything. Everybody has to be inside," Attard said. "She said last time they did that, it was World War II."

Before he opened the French shop in Lexington, Attard said he worked as a government security agent in France. After 10 years as an agent, Attard said he was devastated but not surprised by Friday's seige.

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Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Christopher Gavin can be reached at christopher.gavin@globe.com. Lauren Fox can be reached at lauren.fox@globe.com.