The day the French rose: ‘We are not afraid’
On Jan. 20, President François Hollande of France declared: “Today, Paris is the capital of the world,” as 3.7 million French citizens marched across that country to show their solidarity behind the victims of terror attacks, as well as their defiance.
Press reports said it was the first time since the liberation of Paris in August 1944 that so many people took to the streets en masse to show not only their respect for the victims but also their support for the values of the French republic—liberté, egalité, fraternité and the freedoms of speech and of the press.
The national outpouring of grief by French citizens of all ages, religions and nationalities was sparked by the attack in the previous week on the offices of the satirical Paris weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo by gunmen, which left 12 dead, and the killing of a female police officer the following day, and the attack on a kosher supermarket in which four died.
The mood of the crowd was one of unity. According to press reports, the crowd that assembled at the Place de la Républic chanted “Je suis Charlie,” waved French flags, sang the French anthem “La Marseillaise,” and brandished pens, pencils, placards and banners. A young boy carried a placard that read: “Later I will be a journalist. I’m not afraid!”
A day after the attacks, which also led to the death of three gunmen, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in a fiery speech in Évry in the south of France, declared that his country was at war with radical Islam. “It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom and solidarity,” he said.
The New York Times reported that France remained on edge after security forces killed Amedy Coulibaly, who police said was responsible for the death of four hostages at a kosher supermarket near the Porte de Vincennes in eastern Paris, and Saïd and Chérif Kuoachi, the brothers who fatally shot 12 people in and around the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
The crisis and its aftermath presented a major challenge to President Hollande and his government, which is facing religious and cultural rifts as the nation tried to cope with a rapidly growing Muslim population simultaneously with security threats stemming from Islamist extremists.
While Hollande appealed for unity and warned against seeing Muslims as the enemy, Valls called for citizens to join the rally planned for the weekend. “There needs to be a firm message about the republic and of secularism,” he said. “Tomorrow, France and the French can be proud. Everyone must come tomorrow.”
According to press reports, Valls’ statement that France was at war with jihadists and radicals indicated the depth of the concern over security in France and across much of Western Europe. “We are at war—not a war against a religion, not a war against a civilization, but to defend our values, which are universal,” Valls said. “The French people need to stand up for freedom of speech and faith—which in France means keeping religion separate from government. This will be an extraordinary march, which must show the power and dignity of the French people.”
Hollande led the demonstration, walking with arms locked with foreign leaders, in the biggest display of French unity and national pride since the liberation parades at the end of World War II. Addressing the nation, he said: “Freedom is always stronger than barbarity. France always defeats its enemies when it is united. Let’s unite and we will win… Nothing can stop us.”
The outrage of the French people came about after they realized that, unlike the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, the attacks in Paris were not from afar but within the nation’s borders, reported the British newspaper The Guardian.
“It was a murderous danger that appeared from within France,” the newspaper observed. “The fanatical, indoctrinated, armed Islamists who assassinated 17 people in Paris were young French nationals; they were born and educated in France. This key aspect goes a long way in explaining why there was such an outpouring of grief and anger, and the need to reclaim France’s identity by a show of grassroots democratic strength.
“Just as important was the presence of many European leaders and officials. It was not only about solidarity but about restating what Europe is supposed to be about: tolerance, fundamental rights, rule of law. The antidotes against war.
“The terrorists … targeted not only freedom of speech but also the right of blasphemy. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons may not have pleased everyone, but they were about exercising a right that the French Revolution of 1789 introduced.”
Another commentator wrote in The New York Times: “This is why the French are in shock. This is not blind terrorism. It is terrorism targeted at the heart of the French identity. The attackers targeted Charlie Hebdo because it is a symbol of freedom.”
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