There’s never been anything like Paris
In more than twenty years as a journalist I’ve covered many major stories and witnessed many large rallies – but nothing like yesterday in Paris.
I’ve seen angry crowds; defiant crowds; violent crowds: but yesterday in Paris was a day like no other. It was dignified, warm, uplifting – it was French.
I have spent the last few days reading many varying views on what the recent violence in Paris means and where it will lead.
The answer is that it means many different things to many different people; and it is impossible to work out exactly where it will all lead. It seems clear that what’s now needed are responsible actions and calm on all sides.
For my part, I can only give some impressions of what the last few days in Paris have meant to me. I have a forty-year relationship with France, its culture, its language, its people; and I have worked in Paris and across France many times over the last twenty plus years.
The First Killings
Last Wednesday I was working on a piece on Angela Merkel’s visit to London and Britain’s relationship with the EU. In the gulp of one mouthful of coffee everything changed. The first news came through that the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris had been attacked and several members of staff had been slain.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel were now on the phone inside Number 10 to President François Hollande expressing their shock and sympathy.
I watched over the next forty-eight hours as the drama unfolded; as my former BBC colleagues and others from around the world were deployed to Paris; and as the airwaves were filled with events and analysis.
A Paris Station
Arriving at the Gare du Nord in Paris I was struck by the absence of police officers at the station. On a normal day there are usually many armed officers meeting you as you leave the platforms. I realised that they perhaps had more important things to do than worry about people coming off trains. Already, after last week’s event, Europe’s leaders are again looking at increasing border checks, both within the free-movement Schengen zone and at its borders (France/UK for example).
The Champs Elysées
It is of course one of the iconic locations.
The crowds were the usual Friday evening mix of tourists – and Parisians who favour bling and glam!
At the eastern end: the ferris wheel, all lit up by white lights, revolving seemingly effortlessly in the winter evening sky; at the western end, the grand, resplendent Arc de Triomphe, bathed in yellow, and bearing the blue illumination banner: “PARIS EST CHARLIE”. I had a sense of the ridiculous to the sublime.
A Sombre Supermarket
The journalist in me meant I had to go to the kosher supermarket on the eastern edge of the city at Porte de Vincennes. The main No. 1 tourist metro line takes you there from the city centre in less than 20 minutes. Emerging from the metro station you are confronted by a neighbourhood of broad, dual carriageways and smart, high-rise apartment blocks. They wouldn’t be out of place in eastern Berlin or some residential parts of Rome. It wasn’t difficult locating the supermarket. The tell-tale line of television satellite trucks, their dishes all angled in the same direction towards the heavens, guided me in. (It was all a reminder of my days on the road with the BBC.) I approached as calmly and in as dignified a way as it’s possible for an intrusive journalist to do.
The front of the supermarket was boarded up with sections of the smashed glazing still visible. The shop sign was partly damaged – an H hanging down limply from the word ‘cacher’ (French for Kosher). There was still some glass strewn across the pavement. Plastic police cordon tapes fluttered in the wind.
The traffic was chaotic as part of the road – a major intersection – was still blocked by a police line. A dozen or so armed and armour-protected police officers guarded the site, behind a temporary metal barrier that kept back the crowds. At the barrier, passers by laid floral tributes to those who had died. TV camera crews filmed and did interviews with members of the public – so-called vox pops. Members of the public took photographs. A woman posed for her husband to take a shot of her with the grim supermarket frontage as the backdrop: bizarre. An imam appeared and chatted quietly to local people.
A young woman gripped the barrier – then burst into tears.
Three million plus people on the streets of France at the weekend was a show of dignified strength, heart-felt defiance, and France’s (almost) unique ‘laïcité’.
It is only an event like Sunday’s unprecedented march that gives you a visceral sense of what is meant by this almost untranslatable term, ‘laïcité’. (As professor Dominique Moïsi pointed out in a piece for the Huffington Post (“France’s 9/11”) at the weekend, ‘laïcité’ is often wrongly – or inadequately – translated into English as ‘secularism’.) Professor Moïsi says France’s laïcité is much more akin to a religion: ‘the religion of the republic’. It is perhaps the difference between being a subject and being a citizen. It is certainly the strict division between religion and state, enshrined in French law since the beginning of the 20th century.
On the streets in a march like yesterday’s, it means:-
– I march beside you, regardless of your religious creed, political stance, or sexual orientation;
– I march beside you, because we all have the human right to be the individuals we aspire to be;
– I march beside you because we are equal;
– I march beside you because I defend your right to be you;
– I march beside you, because we all believe in freedom of expression.
And there could be no more physical an expression of these sentiments than the coming together of every element of French society, and many from abroad, in yesterday’s Marche Républicaine.
Politics & Security
I salute the French state for managing to organise such a huge event in such a short space of time – and in safety. I commend the leaders of Europe for linking arms in a show of political solidarity.
But most of all I pay tribute to those who lost their lives – of all faiths and of none – in such horrifying circumstances.