France holds largest ever rally to say 'Je Suis Charlie'

AS MANY as three million people are estimated to have attended the "Republican march" in Paris - also called the "march against hatred" - which has turned out to be the largest demonstration in France's history.

The French Interior Ministry described the "unprecedented" rally as so vast the number of those attending was impossible to count.

French media meanwhile has estimated up to three million have taken part - more than the numbers who took to the streets of the French capital after it was liberated by the Allies from the Nazis in the Second World War, AP has reported.

At 4pm local time every avenue and boulevard around the Place de la Republique was blocked solid. Most people were unable to move forward - and seemed unlikely ever to do so.  New rivers and streams of humanity still poured into the crowd from every direction.

World leaders rally in France's largest ever rally following the terrorist attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo
World leaders rally in France's largest ever rally following the terrorist attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo

Nearby metro stations were closed. At those a little distance away which remained open, crowds waited patiently to leave each platform. Each train that arrived was packed.

"France will not be the same after today," said Michel, 46, as he took part in what was indeed to be a day of extraordinary precedents set.

The Israeli Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian authority Mahmoud Abbas participated in the same demonstration. President François Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkosy marched side by side.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was taking part in a street demonstration for the first time in his life.  "The Charlie Hebdo murders will not crush our spirit or our values," he tweeted on his way to Paris this morning.

King Abdallah of Jordan and the brother of the Emir of Qatar marched alongside the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian, Nigerian and Malian leaders - more than 50 world leaders in all - in the two mile march from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris.

The procession was so great in numbers that it was, in the end, split into three. Family members of the victims of the terror attacks lead one of the branches, the world leaders another.

Scores of other French politicians, writers, artists and actors were also expected to shout or hold up signs declaring "Je suis Charlie". Since cartoonists and other employees of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered in Paris on Wednesday - unleashing three days of terrorist mayhem which killed 17 people - the slogan has become a global symbol of defence of western values.

Up to three million people are thought to have attended the Parisian march
Up to three million people are thought to have attended the Parisian march


"It's overwhelming. The whole of Paris seems to be here," Michel said. "I can't describe the mood. There is a feeling of anger and determination but also relief at being able to express our feelings after three days of shock after shock."

"People will say it's just a passing thing but I think something important is happening here today."

Over 5,000 police and soldiers were deployed on the streets of Paris, with another 90,000 sent to protect 60 similar marches nationwide. Snipers lined the roofs of buildings on the Paris route, while helicopters patrolled overhead.

Ahead of his appearance at the march, Mr Hollande told ministers: "Today, Paris is the capital of the world," according to officials quoted by France's AFP news agency.

The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, called the demonstration "a shout for love and freedom and tolerance which will remain in the annals of history."

Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz comforts colleague, writer Patrick Pelloux.
Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz comforts colleague, writer Patrick Pelloux.

France is a land of demonstrations, but this was something unheard of: not a demonstration against something but a demonstration for the values of the French Republic and western democracy. Every strand of French society appeared to be present: old and young, left and right, white, brown and black.

The last time Paris had seen such a vast and varied crowd on its streets was on the night that France won the World Cup in 1998. That was an explosion of spontaneous joy. This was a shout - mostly a silent shout - of defiance.

There were old men in berets; black youngsters from the multi-racial suburbs in baseball hats; Jews in kippahs and black hats; Muslims in heads carves. There were people on roller skates, people wheeling bicycles, people in wheelchairs, toddlers in buggies.

 The statue in the centre of the Place de la Republique, resembling the Statue of Liberty in New York - was covered in people and banners. One read: "I think therefore I am Charlie" - a reference to the French 17th century philosopher Descartes' famous dictum "I think therefore I am."

Dr Paola Belfort, demonstrating with her husband Philippe, also a doctor, said. "I could not imagine the idea of not being here. I have rarely demonstrated. My husband has never been to a demonstration in his life.

"But it is important that the world sees how many we are, and how united we are. This is not to protest or reject but to state our belief in fundamental values, beginning with the freedom of the press. I never read Charlie Hebdo but to attack a newspaper - any newspaper - is an assault on everything that makes our society possible."

Je Suis Charlie
Je Suis Charlie

The mood of the crowd was a mixture of sombre, defiant and almost joyous. One man stood with an eight-year-old boy displaying a sign with unusual characters. Asked what it said, he turned the sign around. "It says this, 'Je suis Charlie', in Kabyle," he said.

Kabyle is the minority language of Algeria. Hamid said: "I am Kabyle and I am Muslim. These killers were not Muslims. I am here to say that I support the democratic values of France and I am also a devout Muslim."

A sign in the crowd read: "They wanted to bring France to its knees. They brought Europe to its feet." Another said: "Make laugh, not war."

The most notable absentee from the march was Marine Le Pen, president of the Islamophobic, far-right Front National. She was not invited to walk alongside leaders of other French political parties but President Hollande urged her to attend as an individual.

On Saturday, she attacked the "hypocrisy" of a demonstration of "national unity" which excluded a party supported by one in five French voters. She announced that she would march instead in Beaucaire, a small heavily FN-supporting town in the Rhône delta. 

The presence of representatives from countries known for repressing freedom of speech caused some consternation.

The Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the Russian foreign minister, Sergueï Lavrov, the Hungarian Prime minister Victor Orban and the President of Gabon, Ali Bongo were also expected to attend.

In the Reporters sans Frontiers league table of respect for press freedom in 2014, Turkey came 154th out of 180 countries, Russia 148th, Gabon 98th and Israel 96th.

The Le Monde reporter and political commentator, Marion van Renterghem, tweeted: "Netanyahu, Lavrov, Orban, Davutoglu, Bongo at the press freedom demo. Why not Bashar al-Assad?"

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