Meeting the Londoners at Last Night's 'Charlie Hebdo' Solidarity Vigil
They stood in silent defiance in Trafalgar Square, pens held aloft.
Silence fell upon Trafalgar Square yesterday as hundreds of Londoners spontaneously gathered in reaction to the barbaric killing of 12 people at the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The worst attack on French soil in more than 40 years particularly hit home with the capital's sizable French community. "It feels like 9/11, it's the same shock," said Jérémy, a young Frenchman who recently moved to London. Among the first to arrive on the square last night, he showed me his pen and notebook: "I brought my own weapons."
As a French person living in London, I couldn't see myself being anywhere else last night. It was difficult to process what had happened on the streets of Paris that I know so well. It didn't make sense, and it won't for a while.
I thought about the satirists whose drawings I've grown up with. Sometimes they made me laugh to tears. Other times they made me uneasy—I thought they were adding fuel to the fire in France's tense religious and political climate. But I'll always respect Charlie Hebdo for standing up proudly to defend its anti-establishment spirit and freedom of speech.
"I'm worried racism is going to explode—that's exactly what makes the scores of the [mainstream far-right French party] National Front go up. It's scary," said Anaïs Cornivault, a French student based in London.
"What the attackers want is to install a climate of terror. This is why we came here, to show them that we're not scared," added her friend Laura Daviller.
"It's insane that words or drawings can get people killed," said Alice Caubrière, a politics student. "I'm going to buy a subscription; we can't be defeated."
Like the gatherings happening simultaneously across France, where more than 100,000 people paid tribute to the deceased, those assembled defiantly held hundreds of pens in the air. Then a faint and solemn "Marseillaise" filled the square: the only time all evening the heavy silence was broken. It was like a funeral for France's favorite clowns: Cabu, Charb, Tignous, Wolinski, the country's top satirists.
And it wasn't only French expats in attendance. "I've never read Charlie Hebdo," explained Geoff Moore, a retired lecturer who used to work at the London College of Printing, "but I'm a lifelong reader of Private Eye. I feel very moved." Geoff had printed out a sign that read "Je Suis Charlie" ("I Am Charlie"), a phrase of solidarity that has been adopted worldwide. "The UK and France are so close—both are free countries. It's our common values that have come under attack," he says.
Charlie Hebdo was created in 1970. Cabu, who was born Jean Cabut and murdered yesterday, had been there from the start. The publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006 made the weekly a target for attacks. The magazine's office was destroyed by a firebomb in 2011, and the newspaper's new premises were placed under police guard. Until his death yesterday, the satirist Charb, born Stephane Charbonnier, had also been living under police protection after receiving death threats. At the time, he said, "It probably sounds a bit pompous, but I'd rather die standing than on my knees."
"We're shocked, moved, and angry," said Josette Gerlier, who moved to the UK in 1968. She held one of the paper's most famous covers: the one in which Charb and the Prophet Muhammad are passionately kissing. The caption reads: "Love is stronger than hate."
"I used to work at the French Institute. We used to receive Charlie Hebdo every week. Now what?" A tear rolled down Josette's cheek as she spoke.
An hour passed and still not a sound. People lined up to drop their pens on the ground among the "I Am Charlie" signs, flowers, and pictures of some of the deceased. Candles were lit. If we hadn't gathered in honor of the blasphemous Charlie Hebdo, it would have almost felt like a church procession.
At the time of the vigil, the attackers were still on the loose, and even in Londo, people were worried. "You can't feel scared, you can't let it affect you, but it does really bring home that a terrorist attack like this could happen again here," said Joel Midgley, a 22-year-old who tells me that his dream is to become a journalist. I ask if it had deterred him. "Not in the slightest. I am more determined than ever."