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Fear and Unity at the Largest March in French History

Millions of Parisians took to the streets yesterday to show that the "Charlie Hebdo" massacre won't divide them.

by Oscar Rickett
Jan 12 2015, 12:00pm

Photos by Etienne Rouillon and John Beck

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

On the morning of Sunday's unity march in Paris, flowers lined the walls outside the original offices of Charlie Hebdo. Cartoons had been drawn in tribute. "Paris will always be Paris," one read. There were fists holding pens. One old man was covered, head to toe, in handmade signs with the "Je Suis Charlie" slogan on them.

I was with a VICE News film crew and Luc Hermann, the executive producer at documentary company Premieres Lignes, talked to us about the day of the massacre. The offices of Premieres Lignes were four meters from Charlie Hebdo's. Hermann's colleagues had been the first on the scene. There was a lot of smoke and a lot of blood, they said. They tended to the wounded and looked for survivors. In the aftermath of the shootings, those who'd been on the scene first were able to give a couple of interviews. Now, they could—they were too traumatized.

Hermann said that when Charlie Hebdo moved into their office building, his team was excited. They knew, obviously, that the old Charlie Hebdo offices had been firebombed. But when police cars appeared outside the offices for protection, they joined the satirical magazine's staff in laughing about it. It was their way of coping with the fear, but it was also their way of living. Hermann hoped that his company and Charlie Hebdo would work on some projects together.

When Cherif Kouachi and his older brother Said were identified as the gunmen, Hermann realized that, by terrible coincidence, he knew them. In 2005, he had investigated the Buttes-Chaumont cell, of which Cherif was a member. The cell sent young Frenchmen to al Qaeda–affiliated training camps, but Hermann recalled Cherif as less a dedicated fighter and more a lost boy who still liked to smoke and drink. A product of the sprawling, poverty-stricken 19th arrondissement, Cherif had, Hermann thought, probably been let down by French society.

I had arrived in Paris on Friday, two days before the march and two days after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. In the countryside to the north of the capital, the landscape looked medieval. Church spires humbly poked their way up into dark gray skies. Houses sat enveloped by a bottom layer of lighter gray. On the internet, shock and horror had morphed into a dizzying debate on free speech encompassing everything from the perceived racism of Charlie Hebdo to the West's hypocrisy to the suggestion that Islam itself is to blame for those who use its name in vain.

On the streets, there was some fear and much emotion. The Metro was quieter than usual but the sirens never stopped. A 30-year-old woman with a newborn baby told me she was worried that demonstrations of unity would be bombed. Employees at a pharmacy said they were concerned their local Metro station would be targeted. Friends at a local magazine admitted they'd left work early the past two days. French Muslims feared reprisals from far-right wing groups and, as this map of anti-Muslim attacks from around France shows , their fears were not unfounded. Alongside this fear, though, there was kindness—an outpouring of fraternity among shattered but emboldened people.

From Charlie Hebdo's offices, we made our way toward Place de la République, the starting point for the march. The square has, in the last few days, been the location for an ongoing vigil in honor of the dead and the statue that sits in the middle of it is covered in messages of support, flags, drawings, and cartoons while all around it groups sit in circles lighting candles in front of them.

The march had brought up to 2 million people out onto the streets. The French Interior Ministry said it was impossible to count, there were so many. In some side roads, the crowds couldn't move at all. People sat in trees and on top of public toilets. They hung from balconies and stood in the windows of restaurants. On the rooftops, police snipers dropped in and out of view. There were, it was reported, more than 2,000 police officers and 1,350 soldiers on duty, but their presence was never keenly felt. No one was getting kettled, though at times the sheer volume of the crowd meant that it was impossible to move.

We were, in this heaving mass of people, far from the front line of political leaders posing for their own purposes—making a show of their love of freedom when for the most part their actions had never demonstrated such a love. David Cameron took the opportunity to ratchet up the "clash of civilizations" narrative by speaking of a "fanatical death cult" and echoing the head of Mi5's demands for increased surveillance powers by talking of "keeping our security strong." Other freedom-lovers present to bang their own drums included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and a delegation from the country widely thought to fund an array of extremist groups, Saudi Arabia.

For once, though, the hypocrisy of the leaders didn't seem to matter. The people of Paris were doing something real together. Not on the internet but on the streets. They brought signs celebrating all different kinds of creativity; they sang anthems ranging from "La Marseillaise" to a song that called for unity between Jews and Muslims. "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies," one sign read. "Long live peace, long live liberty," said another. "Dying of laughter," said a third.

On one wall, a far-right party had put up a couple of posters. "That's not our France," pleaded the crowd gathered around it. Freedom in its Western conception can be a hard idea to defend when its ideological trumpeting comes against the real world backdrop of the recent CIA torture report, or racism in police forces, or the innocent civilians who die around the world as a result of the actions of Western governments, or any number of dreadful things that are often too hard to bear.

But the people marching in Paris on Sunday were not marching in defense of the real-world hypocrisies and betrayals present in noble ideas. They were marching for liberty, equality, and fraternity, and they meant those things in their truest sense. They brought their own emotion and their own conception of injustice and they shared it with those around them. One marcher even carried a sign that said: "I am marching but I am conscious of the confusion and the hypocrisy of the situation."

At the center of Place de la République, the monument was covered in people and flags and messages. At its heart, a group of Palestinians had been joined by a group of Israelis. Two men from the group—one Palestinian, one Israeli—hugged and kissed each other. They looked out to the people gathered around them, shouted "Shalom, salaam, against prejudice." The crowd picked it up, and soon people of all ages and all racial backgrounds were singing together, resisting the temptation to give into fear, resisting the desires of those in politics and the media who would have us turn on one another.

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.

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