Paris changed last week, perhaps forever. The city I have called home for nearly 20 years was hit hard, but has rebounded spectacularly. As the reverberations continue to be felt, nobody seems sure what will be left standing and what will topple over, whether Paris will become place of new found respect and civility or flatten back out into a city of dislocation, distrust and mutual misunderstandings. Only one thing is certain; a number of new dates, names and places have sadly been written into the city’s history books.
As the story of the Charlie Hebdo killings broke last Wednesday - rapidly and shockingly in today’s world of instant media - people, not knowing how to react, needed symbols to cling to. First came the hashtags and graphics, but Paris needed more than virtual displays of solidarity. The French republic had been attacked; it had to be defended at what has now become almost the incarnation of the city’s soul and values – the statue of Marianne at the Place de la République.
Coming home that evening, I was forced out of the Metro onto the square. Unable to cope with the flow of people, the station was being shut down, and trains were passing through without stopping. I’m not someone who particularly likes being in large crowds, but here I had no choice. What I saw though was different from anything I’d seen before. There was no pushing and no signs of irritation, just a patient line of people waiting to leave the station.
Outside, the scene was almost surreal. Despite living nearby, I had never seen so many people on this square (although those numbers would be dwarfed just a few days later). But despite the sheer quantity of people, there was almost silence. People didn’t seem to know where to go or what to do, they just seemed to share a feeling that they needed to be there, needed to be part of this body mass. And it did feel comforting to be there.
The situation would worsen with further attacks in the next two days, ending – we hope – with the spectacular interventions that were played out live on television on Friday. Paris was shocked, Paris was afraid, but – for once – Paris was also hugely grateful to its police and security forces, who had also paid a heavy price.
For the next few days, the Place de la République became almost a place of pilgrimage, with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of people sitting or standing in small groups in the shadow of Marianne – and of course under the lights of TV crews. Then on Sunday 11th, hundreds of thousands more came to join them, meeting for a march that would be the biggest ever seen in the city.
From early afternoon I could see the crowds heading down to République from the windows of my apartment. The road had not been closed, but they had closed the road themselves. Walking down the middle of the street were the old, the young, entire families, people with rapidly sketched homemade signs and others just holding pencils or flowers. Later I went down to join them, but didn’t get any further than the Place at the bottom of my street.
And yet it still also felt like the most significant place to be. The Place de la République – recently reworked into a large space to meet and gather – has come of age. It is no longer just a busy transport interchange or scruffy square, but rather a symbol of unity and shared beliefs – although it is thankfully still pleasingly shabby!
Today I returned, this time in search of a copy of the almost miraculous latest edition of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. The crowd had dissipated, although it had possibly just morphed into the huge queue leading towards the only kiosque left with any copies of the paper. Ironically, it may not be the attacks that bring Charlie Hebdo to an end, but rather this undesired switch into the mainstream!
Marianne was now alone again at the heart of the square, but covered in messages, banners, flowers, pencils and candles. Her significance has been reinforced, but one hopes she does not become a kind of Dianaesque maudlin shrine. Her message should remain a vibrant one, a reflection of values that live on.
This 'sursaut républicain' - the wake-up call and impeccable reaction - has been to the city's credit, but Paris has also been forced to recognise that the killings were perpetrated by children of the city. Paris has known many other terrorist attacks, but previous acts represented violence imported from other places. And whilst terrorist acts can often seem senseless and blind, this one was a clear attack on one of the defining principles of France; liberté. Was this then a city falling apart?
The millions who marched on Sunday did so to say no, to refuse to be defined but what makes us different and instead focus on what we share. It was the voice of the silent majority, defending values that Charlie Hebdo had bravely celebrated – often alone, because no-one imagined that cartoonists could be executed in Paris.
The statue of Marianne represents the victory of the republic. The victory will not be complete though until everyone feels at home at her feet – and understands fully what she represents. Looking at the statue, we should also perhaps remind ourselves that there can be no liberté without égalité. Paris still has deep pockets of inequality, the counterpoint to the diamond dazzle of her beauty. In the close suburbs, the situation is even worse.
Equality is not simply a financial concept. It also means the opportunity to succeed, to be heard, to feel part of society. Religion has become an easy diversion, a net to catch the alienated, angry and frustrated and a tool branded by those who cynically and perversely seek to redirect these sentiments. The killers had been channeled down this path, transformed into remote-control zombie enemies of the state. It is only if we manage to stop similar terrible mutations - by focusing on fraternity, respecting liberty and ensuring equality - that we will prevent other dates, names and places from entering into city infamy.