PARIS – It was the day Paris united. And with dozens of world leaders joining the millions of people marching to commemorate and celebrate the victims of last weekâ€™s terror attacks, it was also the day the world united behind the city.
â€œToday, Paris is the capital of the world. The entire country will rise up,â€ the French president, FranÃ§ois Hollande, said.
It was the first time since the liberation of Paris in August 1944 that so many people â€“ the interior ministry said there were too many to count but most estimates put it at somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million â€“ took to the streets of the city. An estimated 3.7 million took to the streets across the whole country.
As investigations continue into the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine by SaÃ¯d and ChÃ©rif Kouachi, which left 12 dead on Wednesday, the killing of a female police officer the following day, and the attack on a Kosher supermarket by AmÃ©dy Coulibaly on Friday in which four died, the mood among the crowds in Paris was one of unity.
This was a nationwide outpouring of grief, solidarity and defiance. Parisiens of all ages, religions and nationalities turned out en masse not only to show their respect for the victims but their support for the values of the Republic: â€œlibertÃ©, Ã©galitÃ©, fraternitÃ©â€ â€“ freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
â€œOn est tous Charlieâ€ (We are all Charlie), they chanted, waving French flags, singing La Marseillaise, brandishing pens, pencils, placards and banners in French, English and Arabic.
Some read â€œNous sommes la RÃ©publiqueâ€ (We are the Republic) and â€œJe suis Muslimâ€. One child held a banner reading: â€œI am Charlie, I am the police, and no ChÃ©rif will take away my liberty.â€ Another young boy carried a placard reading: â€œLater I will be a journalist. Iâ€™m not afraid!â€
â€œWe are united â€“ Muslims, Catholics, Jews, we want to live peacefully together,â€ one woman told reporters.
A group of marchers carried a large model of a pencil with â€œNOT AFRAIDâ€ written on the side.
The noise along the route, where around 2,200 heavily armed police and gendarmes, including crack snipers on roofs, were deployed, rose and fell in waves, with songs and chants of â€œCharlie, Charlie, Charlieâ€ punctuating the solemnity of the atmosphere and drowning out the helicopters overhead.
At regular intervals, the crowd stopped to applaud police and gendarmes shouting â€œmerci policeâ€; three police officers died in the attacks.
On a political and diplomatic level, it was unparalleled. Protocol rules were ignored as around 50 world leaders congregated in the French capital. Presidents, prime ministers, statesmen and women took buses from the ElysÃ©e palace to join the march from Place de la RÃ©publique to Place de la Nation, two of Parisâ€™s best-known squares.
The occasion was sombre and heavy with symbolism. As the dignitaries left the ElysÃ©e, it rained. By the time they arrived, the grey clouds had parted, allowing a rare ray of winter sunshine.
Here were some of the most powerful people on earth jostling for space in the Paris boulevard named after Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, historian and advocate of freedom of religion and speech.
The leaders then set off, arm in arm, Hollande in the centre, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to his left. To his right, Ibrahim Boubacar KÃ«ita, the president of Mali â€“ where French troops intervened to push back Islamist forces in 2013 â€“ the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the British prime minister, David Cameron. As they marched, the crowds that lined the route broke into cheers and applause.
As a powerful mark of respect for those who died, the world leaders took second place, walking behind the families and friends of the victims of last weekâ€™s attacks.
Charlie Hebdo staff, including those who survived Wednesdayâ€™s attack, wore white headbands bearing the name Charlie.
In the leading cortege, tears streamed down faces etched with pain, grief and shock. Several mourners had to be gently supported as they made their way towards Place de la Nation.
In one poignant and profoundly emotional scene, Hollande hugged Patrick Pelloux, an A&E doctor who is also a journalist at Charlie Hebdo. Pelloux arrived late at the magazine office on Wednesday to find many of his colleagues had been slaughtered. He and other survivors have vowed to publish Charlie Hebdo next Wednesday despite the attack with a record print run of 1 million copies.
Leaders of all the religions marched behind a banner bearing the slogan â€œWe are Charlieâ€.
Earlier in the day hundreds gathered to honour Ahmed Merabet, 42, the police officer gunned down in the Charlie Hebdo attack. The hashtag #JesuisAhmed has become widely used on Twitter along with #JesuisCharlie.
Pierre-Yves Martin, mayor of Livry Gargan in the north-east of Paris, paid homage to a â€œcalm and talentedâ€ man. The Muslim officer was killed at close range by the fleeing gunmen SaÃ¯d and ChÃ©rif Kouachi.
â€œAhmed Merabet, your life was stolen and no one can give it back, and so it was not taken in vain we are here, united against barbarism and to uphold the values of the Republic,â€ Martin said.
The mayor asked those gathered to hold hands for a minuteâ€™s silence. Flowers were laid in front of a portrait of the assassinated man, and the crowd sang La Marseillaise.
On Sunday evening, after the march, Hollande was due at the Grande Synagogue in Paris to meet Jewish leaders. The Jewish community has been traumatised by Fridayâ€™s hostage-taking at the kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes in eastern Paris.
Speaking to reporters before meeting Hollande and the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, Roger Cukierman, president of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF, condemned those who were using social media to express support for the Kouachi brothers killed in a shootout by police on Friday, around the same time a separate police assault killed gunman AmÃ©dy Coulibaly at the supermarket.
â€œIt is intolerable that there is a hashtag on social media saying #IamKouachi,â€ Cukierman said. He branded the tweets as â€œan apology for murderâ€ which should be pursued through the courts.
Government ministers, led by prime minister Manuel Valls, and representatives from Franceâ€™s political parties, including the former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, were part of another delegation at the march. The far right Front National, which has linked immigration with terrorism, was not invited to take part in the official cortege.
Franceâ€™s Socialist government had called for a Republican march, but so many citizens responded to the call it became more of a crowded shuffle along the 3km route.
The events of last week have deeply shocked and scarred the French people who found a sense of collective comfort in coming together on Sunday to say â€œWe are not afraidâ€. As night fell, they continued to march and gather, reluctant to leave the comfort of the crowd and the momentous occasion. – The Guardian