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World leaders link arms at historic Paris march – Tears, cheers but ‘no fear’ at massive rally
January 12, 2015, 9:08 am
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A general view shows hundreds of thousands of French citizens taking part in a solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015.

World leaders including Muslim and Jewish statesmen linked arms to lead an estimated million-plus French citizens through Paris in an unprecedented march under high security to pay tribute to victims of Islamist militant attacks. Paris police said the turnout was "without precedent" but too large to count. One organizer said he had indications it could be between 1.3 and 1.5 million people. Some commentators said the last street presence in the capital on this scale was at the Liberation of Paris from Nazi Germany in 1944.

President Francois Hollande and leaders from Germany, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Britain and the Palestinian territories among others, moved off from the central Place de la Republique ahead of a sea of French and other flags. Giant letters attached to a statue in the square spelt out the word "Pourquoi?" (Why?) and small groups sang the "La Marseillaise" national anthem. Some 2,200 police and soldiers patrolled Paris streets to protect marchers from would-be attackers, with police snipers on rooftops and plain-clothes detectives mingling with the crowd. City sewers were searched ahead of the vigil and underground train stations around the march route were closed down.

The march mostly went ahead in a respectful silence, reflecting shock over the worst militant Islamist assault on a European city in nine years. For France, it raised questions of free speech, religion and security, and beyond French frontiers it exposed the vulnerability of states to urban attacks. Two of the gunmen had declared allegiance to Al-Qaeda in Yemen and a third to the militant Islamic State. All three were killed during the police operations in what local commentators have called "France's 9/11", a reference to the Sept 2001 attacks on US targets by Al-Qaeda.

"Paris is today the capital of the world. Our entire country will rise up and show its best side," said Hollande. "Fantastic France! I am told there could be as many as 1.3 million to 1.5 million of us in Paris," Francois Lamy, the lawmaker charged by the ruling Socialist Party with organizing the rally, tweeted. At least 700,000 more joined vigils in other cities across France. In London, several landmarks including Tower Bridge were due to be lit up in the red white and blue colours of the French national flag in a show of support for the event in Paris. Fifty-seven people were killed in an Islamist militant attack on London's transport system in 2005.

Seventeen people, including journalists and police, were killed in three days of violence that began with a shooting attack on the weekly Charlie Hebdo known for its satirical attacks on Islam and other religions as well as politicians. It ended on Friday with a hostage-taking at a Jewish deli in which four hostages and the gunman were killed. Hours before the march, a video emerged featuring a man resembling the gunman killed in the kosher deli. He pledged allegiance to the Islamic State insurgent group and urged French Muslims to follow his example.

"We're not going to let a little gang of hoodlums run our lives," said Fanny Appelbaum, 75, who said she lost two sisters and a brother in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. "Today, we are all one." Zakaria Moumni, a 34-year-old Franco-Moroccan draped in the French flag, agreed: "I am here to show the terrorists they have not won - it is bringing people together of all religions."

"Who am I?" yelled a driver on one metro line. "Charlie!" responded the crowd, clapping, on a journey where people usually avert gazes and stay glued to their cellphones. "I am really happy to work today and take you to the Republican march," said another driver on the Metro also to applause. Despite their differences, people came together under wintry blue skies with a defiant message: France will not be divided by fear or religious differences. "I am French and I am not afraid" read one banner. Daniel, a hip young Jewish singer and Riad a 60-year-old Muslim shopkeeper swapped views on the country's ordeal as the crowd gathered.

The tragedy spurred the greatest outpouring of patriotic spirit seen in decades, with the French flag fluttering through the air and the Marseillaise anthem ringing out through days of marches. One of the most unexpected scenes of the day, was when a crowd burst into spontaneous applause for passing gendarmes, shouting "Thank You" - in a country where riot police are notoriously unpopular. Then there were the tears. First from some marchers unable to contain their emotion, then from families of those killed in the three days of terror who wept and held hands.

But not everyone went to the march. Samir, 29, said he found it hard to condemn the Islamist attack on Charlie Hebdo, as the satirical magazine had "insulted the Prophet (PBUH)". Samia, 47, in another part of Paris, was annoyed for other reasons. She thinks the march "gives importance to jihadists, to these crazies".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi were among 44 foreign leaders marching with Hollande. Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu - who earlier encouraged French Jews to emigrate to Israel - and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were also present. Immediately to Hollande's left, walked Merkel and to his right Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. France intervened to help fight Islamist rebels there two years ago to the day.

In a rare public display of emotion by two major-power leaders, cameras showed Hollande embracing Merkel, her eyes shut and forehead resting on his cheek, on the steps of the Elysee before they headed off to march. After world leaders left the march, Hollande stayed to greet survivors of the Charlie Hebdo attack and their families.

While there has been widespread solidarity with the victims, there have been dissenting voices. French social media have carried comments from those uneasy with the "Je suis Charlie" slogan interpreted as freedom of expression at all cost. Others suggest there was hypocrisy in world leaders whose countries have repressive media laws attending the march. The head of France's 550,000-strong Jewish community, Roger Cukierman, the largest in Europe, said Hollande had promised that Jewish schools and synagogues would have extra protection, by the army if necessary, after the killings.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whom analysts see receiving a boost in the polls due to the attacks, said her anti-immigrant party had been excluded from the Paris demonstration and would instead take part in regional marches. In Germany, a rally against racism and xenophobia on Saturday drew tens of thousands of people in the eastern German city of Dresden, which has become the centre of anti-immigration protests organised by a new grassroots movement called PEGIDA. A building of the newspaper Hamburger Morgenpost, which like many other publications has reprinted Charlie Hebdo cartoons, was the target of an arson attack and two suspects were arrested, police said yesterday.

Twelve people were killed in Wednesday's initial attack on Charlie Hebdo, a journal known for satirizing religions and politicians. The attackers, two French-born brothers of Algerian origin, singled out the weekly for its publication of cartoons depicting and ridiculing Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Turkish and French sources said a woman hunted by French police as a suspect in the attacks had left France several days before the killings and is believed to be in Syria. French police had launched in an intensive search for Hayat Boumeddiene, the 26-year-old partner of one of the attackers, describing her as "armed and dangerous".

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