Shortly after 12 p.m. yesterday, I was walking around the center of Paris on the day that big stores like BHV and Zara annually launch their post-holiday half-price sales. The afternoon was cold and gray but felt otherwise normal, with Parisians on their lunch breaks wearing their enormous winter scarves and smoking cigarettes. I heard sirens but didn’t think much of it. Then my French mother-in-law in the Alps texted me: “Are you guys okay? You’ve heard the news about Charlie Hebdo?”
Only then did I Google to learn the devastating news that was stunning Paris. I couldn’t believe that, in this most civilized of cities, such carnage had just taken place so close to where I stood on the Rue de Rivoli. I started eavesdropping on conversations, finding that many midday shoppers and salesclerks were talking about the atrocity in hushed voices. Stopping in a café, I found everyone there riveted to the television.
Social media blew up with reports of a huge rally planned for Place de la Republique, Paris’s equivalent to Union Square, that night. A few hours later I headed there, sitting on the Metro next to a middle-aged couple holdings signs with a slogan that had instantly become ubiquitous in the streets and online: “Je suis Charlie.” I am Charlie. They weren’t usually activists, they told me, but felt like they had to be at the demonstration. I started chatting about the situation with another woman next to me. She said she was in shock at an attack on such a scale.
I dared to ask her the question I’d long wondered myself, ever since seeing the crude images of Mohammed, some of them pornographic, that Charlie Hebdo had published two years ago, against the wishes of the French government. The magazine knew full well that it was considered blasphemy in some quarters of Islam to depict images of the prophet, that they were courting vengeance. Did she think that sometimes the magazine went too far?
“Well, Muslims think it shows a lack of respect,” she said.
“No!” the woman with the sign instantly broke in. “Not Muslims. Terrorists. They’re not the same thing.”
“Yes, yes,” the woman next to me said sheepishly. “I meant terrorists.”
Place de la Republique was mobbed with people (an estimated 35,000), becoming more and more packed as I wended my way toward the giant, round Statue de la Republique in the center, which was ringed with young people who’d climbed up onto it, leading the sea of people below in cries of “Liberté d’expression!” and “On s’appelle Charlie!” A black band had been tied around the arm of one of the three statues of women symbolizing liberté, égalité, and fraternité, the triad of the French republic. The crowd started chanting, “Ensemble, unis, pour la democracie!” (Together, united, for democracy. In French, it rhymes.) And, in a new fusion word, “Charliberté!” Atop the statue, young people held giant photos of some of the cartoonists and editors who’d been killed that day.
“They didn’t just attack Charlie,” one of two young men at my side told me. “They attacked France, and freedom.” (It should be noted that free speech here, as in many European countries, is not as absolute as it is in the U.S.; it is a crime, among other expressions, to deny the Holocaust or sell Nazi items.)
Aside from the intermittent chanting, the mood of the crowd was mostly quiet, somber — a far cry from the enraged, rambunctious, sometimes oddly joyous protests that have broken out over police violence in New York recently. Many held candles; others held aloft pens, to show support for freedom of the press.
“We are not afraid!” the crowd chanted. “Put caricatures in all the newspapers!” A line of protesters filed through the crowd with giant, lit-up letters that spelled out (in English) NOT AFRAID.
A high-school student next to me helped me translate some of the chants. I asked him the same question: Did he think Charlie Hebdo had ever gone too far?
He smirked knowingly. “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
A very small group of young men started singing “La Marseillaise,” France’s militaristic national anthem, which some have long considered xenophobic and lobbied to change. Instantly, they were drowned out by boos. “That song is a call to battle,” a woman nearby told me. “No, no, no. We are doing this without violence.” This was a liberal urban crowd, about as far away as you could get in France from the hefty proportion of citizens in the provinces who support the far-right National Front, which aims to turn back the country’s tide of immigration, much of it Muslim.
This crowd would brook no Islamophobia amid its mourning and its support for free expression. But, in a city where people of North African and Middle Eastern descent make up a giant swath of the population, I did not see one such face last night in that gigantic crowd. Despite Paris being a far more racially diverse city than the world gives it credit for, the protesters, as far as my eye could see, were almost entirely white.
Another sign and chant predominated: “Pas d’amalgame.” Basically, it means no conflating Muslims or Islam with terrorism. It reminded me of America’s better angels after 9/11, those who insisted that we not entwine the heinous acts with all those who shared the religion of the perpetrators.
There was another poster held aloft by the kids on the statue. It depicted a man in a turban and long beard, presumably Mohammed, weeping. In this country that is aggressively, proudly secular, it seemed that the murders had not dulled the desire of at least some Parisians to flaunt the very image that had played a role in provoking them.
The poster read, “He’s crying, too.”