The rally for the terrorist attacks last week drew 1.3 million people to the streets.
I met Maïa and Charlotte at M&M’s. All public transportation was free for the day, and announcers on the metro informed riders that stations Republique and Oberkampf were closed for the day “pour raison d’une manifestation.”
The streets were closed – no cars were to be seen. People walked in groups, sparsely at first where we began by their apartment, all in the same direction toward Republique. We joined them. It was strangely quiet. A police motorcycle whizzed past us with sirens blaring, and the sound was a hundred times more jolting than usual, crudely ripping through the cobble-stoned streets of murmuring people.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling in the air, but these streets I’ve walked so often by now felt completely alien. There was a heavy, determined energy in the city that afternoon.
We passed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, where the 12 people were shot Wednesday; flowers and candles spilled into the street, and people stood around silently staring at the entrance as though they could somehow glean answers to all the “whys” buzzing in their minds since the incident racked the city. One young couple was locked in an embrace, and the woman’s eyes were red-rimmed and filled with tears.
Everywhere we looked people wore the name “Charlie.” Most people had signs or stickers with “Je suis Charlie” written on them. Students held up pens and an old man wore a hat with colored pencils stuck in it like feathers, and a baby was asleep in a sling decorated with Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I noticed there weren’t many children there. Nobody wanted to say it, but everyone was braced for something bad to happen, despite the anti-terror squads checking the sewers and the snipers standing on rooftops majestically like Parisian Batmen.
We met up with a group of journalism students and stood smooshed between two Jewish organizations. Everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder, moving only to light their cigarettes. I tried to make my way ten feet through the crowd to interview some people holding flags for an organization against anti-Semitism, but mobilization was simply impossible. The sun hid behind clouds and buildings, and the cold seeped through my jacket and scarf and into my pockets where I gripped my pen and notebook.
After an hour, we started moving forward; we were far from Republique, where the march was set to begin, and much farther from Nation, the ending point. Helicopters swarmed overhead; people in the crowd waved French flags and flags bearing the name of their organization. Cameramen climbed streetlights to perch like monkeys with their giant equipment in order to capture the crowds. Every few minutes people would start clapping and chanting “Charlie,” and people of all ages waved flags and shouted down from their balconies along the street.
It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. All the while Maxime texted me as he watched on the television, updating me with the news they were delivering – that’s how I first found out there was a million of us.
I wrote an article for The Speaker with more details about the whole thing: France rallies in act of solidarity against terrorist attacks
After two hours of marching, surrounded by protective security guards (since we were alongside a bunch of journalists, obviously the most targeted group at the moment, alongside the Jewish community), dark had fallen and we were freezing and hungry, so Maia and I parted ways with everyone before we reached Nation.
On the way back to her apartment we stopped at a bakery and scrounged together our change to buy two multigrain baguettes, fresh out of the oven. Chewing them warmed us from inside until we got back and spread salted butter and jam on them, and she showed me photos from her and Matthieu’s trip to Scotland for New Years.
At home, finally warm in my bed, I opened the moonroof in my loft and climbed onto my roof for fresh air before going to sleep – it was exactly 1 a.m., and the Tower was sparkling for the last time for the night before all the lights went out in the city. The moon was enormous and yellow right next to it, and the contrast was breathtaking. I remembered the first time I peeked my head out of my moonroof in the night and saw the Tower lights weren’t shining, before I knew of the city ordinance implemented a few years ago to save energy, and my immediate thought had been, “Something terrible has happened!” I’d grabbed my phone to see if this was normal, if the Eiffel Tower really ceased to shine after a certain time at night, or if terrorists had finally attacked us. That was back in August. Now, the city really had been a target of a terrorist attack, but the Tower still shined. I watched the bluish lights twinkle exactly like stars and then abruptly stop, leaving me on my roof in the moonlight.