At first glance, a hip young Jewish singer and a 60-year-old Muslim Algerian shopkeeper might appear to have little in common. But among the sea of people rallying in Paris on Sunday, they came together after a blood-soaked week in which 17 people — journalists and cartoonists, Jews, Muslims, police officers — were killed in jihadist attacks.
Under wintry blue skies, they shared a simple and defiant message: France will not be divided by fear or by religious differences. “We can live together,” said Daniel Benisty, 30, who is Jewish like the four men killed when Islamist gunman Amedy Coulibaly stormed a kosher supermarket in the French capital on Friday. “It’s the idea of living together because we share the same values, liberty, fraternity, equality, to live in peace and respect each other despite our differences.”
“Exactly!” agreed Riad, the 60-year-old shopkeeper. “I think people have woken up.” Riad, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said the events of the past week reminded him of the dark days of the Algerian war which saw France hit by a wave of extremist violence. “How can this happen in 2015? I don’t recognise these Islamists, they’re not Muslims.”
The families of those killed in the three days of terror wept and held hands, later falling into the arms of French President Francois Holland who greeted them one by one. The moving scene came after some of the world’s leaders linked arms and led the mammoth procession, which saw hundreds and thousands crammed tightly into main arteries and side streets of Paris.
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders were among representatives of around 50 nations who marked a minute of silence. With public transport overwhelmed, thousands headed on foot to the rally where people broke into spontaneous applause as the heads of state and government passed by the swarm of people waving flags and banners.
On display was a bewildering mix of emotions — anger, sadness, hope and fear. Isabelle Dahmani, a French Christian married to a Muslim, Mohamed, brought their three children aged 11, nine and four to show them there is nothing to fear.
The nine-year-old burst into tears watching the news this week, Isabelle admitted, saying her daughter had asked if “the bad men are coming to our house?” The oldest son teased his embarrassed sister while the four-year-old, dressed in pink from head to toe with a piece of paper saying “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) pinned to her jacket, hid giggling behind her mother’s legs.
The phrase that has become the slogan of support for the cartoonists and journalists massacred at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly was seen everywhere. “We are in a free country. We want to stop this terrorism. We want them to see and understand Republican values,” Isabelle told AFP. “But we are kind of anxious, you never know what can happen,” she added, revealing the fear that is still acute in the French capital.
Her husband Mohamed, who is a non-practising Muslim, said that after the attacks, “I didn’t want to leave the house, I was mostly scared of retaliation.”
“One must not confuse Muslims with terrorists,” he said. Earlier in the morning, several joggers on their morning run stopped to pay tribute to the dead. Lassina Traore, a 34-year-old French-born Muslim from the Ivory Coast, stopped after an eight-kilometre (five-mile) run to gently light 17 candles at the foot of the iconic republican monument in the centre of the large Place de la Republique square from where the marchers later set off.
The march is “a real sign of how strong France is. It shows that France is strong when it is united against these people,” said the consultant. As more and more Parisians poured into the spot — and, when that became crammed to capacity, to nearby streets — some held high cartoons drawn by the slain Charlie Hebdo staff. One banner covered in the cartoons proclaimed: “Laugh Charlie, it isn’t over.”