Over 5,000 police and soldiers deployed as part of security measures for the demonstration
They came in their hundreds of thousands: the old and the young, the white, the brown and the black; the left and the right. There were old men in berets; young black people in baseball hats; Jewish people in yarmulkes; Muslims in headscarves. At least 1.5 million people were estimated to have marched – or in many cases failed to march because the crowds were too densely packed – in the centre of Paris today. They marched “for the Republic”, “against hatred” and “for history”.
Another two million marched in more than 60 similar demonstrations in towns and cities across the country. They marched to say “I am Charlie” but also “I am Jewish” and “I am a policeman” after three days of terrorist mayhem starting with the massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last Wednesday.
And as if that were not remarkable enough, there was an unprecedented march of the powerful within the “march of the one and a half million”. Forty-four world leaders linked arms and walked down the Boulevard Voltaire, pausing for a minute’s silence and then again when the names of the 17 victims were broadcast over a loudspeaker. The victims were listed alphabetically, anarchist cartoonists, Jewish supermarket shoppers and police officers all mixed up together.
Who would have thought that the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would walk through Paris four places away from Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority? Who would have imagined the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, would take part in a street demonstration in the French capital (probably the first time that Cameron has demonstrated in his life)?
“Today, Paris is the capital of the world,” said President François Hollande. “Our entire country will rise up towards something better.”
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Many people in the crowd also had a sense that something special was happening. France is a land where politics happens on the street but this was something unheard of: a demonstration for the values of the French Republic and Western democracy. 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 of defiance.
“The whole of Paris seems to be here,” said Michel, 46, an estate agent. “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. France will not be the same after today.”