WATCH ABOVE: Charlie Hebdo solidarity march largest demonstration in French History. Stuart Greer reports.
PARIS – More than a million people surged through the boulevards of Paris behind dozens of world leaders walking arm-in-arm Sunday in a rally for unity described as the largest demonstration in French history. Millions more marched around the country and the world to repudiate three days of terror that killed 17 people and changed France.
Amid intense security and with throngs rivaling those that followed the liberation of Paris from the Nazis, the city became “the capital of the world” for a day, on a planet increasingly vulnerable to such cruelty.
WATCH: More than 40 world leaders, their arms linked, marched through the French capital to honour 17 victims of three days of terrorist attacks.
More than 40 world leaders headed the sombre procession – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – setting aside their differences with a common rallying cry: We stand together against barbarity, and we are all Charlie.
At least 1.2 million to 1.6 million people streamed slowly through the streets behind them and across France to mourn the victims of deadly attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket and police officers – violence that tore deep into the nation’s sense of security in a way some compared to Sept. 11 in the United States.
“Our entire country will rise up toward something better,” Hollande said.
Details of the attacks continued to emerge, with new video showing one of the gunmen pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group and detailing how the attacks were going to unfold. That gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, was also linked to a new shooting, two days after he and the brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre were killed in nearly simultaneous police raids.
The attacks tested France’s proud commitment to its liberties, which authorities may now curtail to ensure greater security. Marchers recognized this as a watershed moment.
“It’s a different world today,” said Michel Thiebault, 70.
Illustrating his point, there were cheers Sunday for police vans that wove through the crowds – a rare sight at the many demonstrations that the French have staged throughout their rebellious history, when protesters and police are often at odds.
Many shed the aloof attitude Parisians are famous for, helping strangers with directions, cheering and crying together. Sad and angry but fiercely defending their freedom of expression, the marchers honoured the dead and brandished pens or flags of other nations.
Giant rallies were held throughout France and major cities around the world, including London, Madrid and New York – all attacked by al-Qaida-linked extremists – as well as Cairo, Sydney, Stockholm, Tokyo and elsewhere.
In Paris, the Interior Ministry said “the size of this unprecedented demonstration makes it impossible to provide a specific count,” noting that the crowds were too big to fit on the official march route and spread to other streets.
Later, the ministry said 3.7 million marched throughout France, including roughly between 1.2 million and 1.6 million in Paris – but added that a precise count is impossible given the enormity of the turnout.
“I hope that at the end of the day everyone is united. Everyone – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists,” said marcher Zakaria Moumni. “We are humans first of all, and nobody deserves to be murdered like that. Nobody.”
On Republic Square, deafening applause rang out as the world leaders walked past, amid tight security and an atmosphere of togetherness amid adversity. Families of the victims, holding each other for support, marched in the front along with the leaders and with journalists working for the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. Several wept openly.
“Je Suis Charlie” – “I Am Charlie,” read legions of posters and banners. Many waved editorial cartoons, the French tricolour and other national flags.
The leaders marched down Voltaire Boulevard – named for the Enlightenment-era figure who symbolizes France’s attachment to freedom of expression. One marcher bore a banner with Voltaire’s famed pledge: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.”
BLOG: Saturday night in Paris
“It’s important to be here for freedom for tolerance and for all the victims. It’s sad we had to get to this point for people to react against intolerance, racism and fascism,” said Caroline Van Ruymbeke, 32.
The French president joined Netanyahu in a visit to a synagogue Sunday night as authorities sought to reassure the Jewish population – Europe’s largest – that it is safe to stay in France. About 7,000 of France’s half-million Jews emigrated to Israel last year amid concerns for their safety and the economy.
“The entire world is under attack” from radical Islam, Netanyahu said, citing attacks in cities from Madrid to Mumbai. He said these aren’t isolated incidents but part of a “network of hatred” by radical groups.
At the synagogue, 17 candles were lit in tribute to the victims of the attacks. One was lit by a hostage at the kosher grocery store. The last was lit by two women whose sons were killed by Mohamed Merah, a radical Islamic gunman who attacked a Jewish school and paratroopers in southern France in 2012.
At an international conference in India, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the world stood with the people of France “not just in anger and in outrage, but in solidarity and commitment to the cause of confronting extremism and in the cause that extremists fear so much and that has always united our countries: freedom.”
As night fell on the unusually unified city, some lit candles.
The three days of terror began Wednesday when brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi stormed the Charlie Hebdo newsroom, killing 12 people, including two police officers. Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen said it directed the attack to avenge the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, a frequent target of the weekly’s barbs. Charlie Hebdo assailed Christianity, Judaism as well as officialdom of all stripes with its brand of sometimes crude satire.
On Thursday, police said Coulibaly killed a policewoman. The next day, he seized hostages at the kosher market while the Kouachi brothers were holed up at a printing plant near Charles de Gaulle airport. It ended at dusk Friday with raids that left all three gunmen dead. Four hostages at the market were also killed.
Five people held in connection with the attacks were freed late Saturday, leaving no one in custody, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office. Coulibaly’s widow, last seen near the Turkish-Syrian border, is still being sought.
France remains on high alert while investigators determine whether the attackers were part of a larger extremist network. More than 5,500 police and soldiers were deployed Sunday across France, guarding marches, synagogues, mosques, schools and other sites.
“The terrorists want two things: they want to scare us and they want to divide us,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told TV channel iTele. “We must do the opposite: We must stand up and we must stay united.”
A look at the gatherings in other cities across the globe:
About 18,000 people gathered in front of the French embassy next to Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate in an impressive show of solidarity for the victims of the Paris attacks. Many brought flowers or pencils and help up signs saying “Je suis Charlie” or “Je suis Juif” (I am a Jew).
Some protesters also held up cartoons published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and played French chansons on CD players they had brought along. Many participants at the rally were French citizens, but altogether, the crowd reflected the cosmopolitan flair of Berlin – people could be heard speaking a melange of German, English, French, Russian and many other European languages.
Marieke Zwarter, a 24-year-old Dutch university student who studies film and lives in Berlin, said she attended the rally to “show that we should not be afraid and will not allow these terrorists to divide our societies.”
Her friend, 20-year-old Russian Polina Panfilova, who studies political science in Berlin, was carrying white flowers.
“It’s important that we’re all here,” she said. “We are sending a clear signal that we won’t let the terrorists win.”
Landmarks including Tower Bridge and the London Eye ferris wheel were lit in the red, white and blue of the French tricolour flag. The French colours were also projected onto the facade of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, where more than 1,000 people gathered Sunday in solidarity with the French people.
Many carried “Je suis Charlie” signs, and some held pens aloft as a tribute to the slain cartoonists.
Mayor Boris Johnson attended the rally and said it had been organized to express with Paris “our feelings of unity in grief and in outrage, and obviously in determination of these two great historic cities of freedom to stand together.”
London has been hit by several major terrorist attacks, the most lethal in July 2005, when four al-Qaida-inspired bombers killed 52 people on three subway trains and a bus.
Hundreds of people gathered in Madrid to express their revulsion at the Paris attacks and support for freedom of speech.
Several hundred Muslims carrying banners saying “Not in our name” rallied at Madrid’s Atocha square, next to the train station where in March 2004 bombs on rush-hour trains killed 191 people in Europe’s deadliest Islamic terror attack. A small group of Muslim religious leaders then laid a wreath with a ribbon saying “In solidarity with France” outside the French Embassy in Madrid where the ambassador received them.
At nearby Puerta del Sol square, hundreds of mainly French protesters drew cartoons and held aloft signs saying “Je suis Charlie.”
Rallies were also held in other Spanish cities, including Barcelona and Valencia.
About a hundred people, mostly French citizens, took part in a so-called Silent March in Moscow’s Gorky Park to honour the 17 victims of the terror attacks in France and show support for freedom of expression.
“I am a French citizen who wants to tell the terrorists that we will fight against the terror and for freedom,” said France’s ambassador to Russia, Jean-Maurice Ripert, who was among the marchers.
In the evening, dozens of Muscovites came to the French Embassy to lay flowers and express their solidarity.
Around 200 protesters gathered in the Lebanese capital Beirut to condemn the attacks in France, carrying signs that said “We are not afraid,” and “Je Suis Ahmad,” – referring to the name of the French Muslim policeman who was killed by the attackers as he tried to defend the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The demonstration was made more poignant for its location: a reflective pool built to commemorate a prominent Arab writer, Samir Kassir, who was assassinated 10 years ago during a spate of killings that targeted politicians and writers living in Lebanon who were critical of neighbouring Syria.
About 200 Palestinians and foreign supporters held a solidarity rally in the central Manara Square in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Participants held French and Palestinian flags.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official, said France and the Palestinians share the same values – liberty, equality and “saving the modern civilization against the criminals who are spreading all across the Arab world and they have attacked the heart of France.”
Several hundred people gathered at a memorial ceremony at Jerusalem’s City Hall to express solidarity with France and the French Jewish community. The gathering, led by Mayor Nir Barket and the city’s chief rabbi, included many French Jewish immigrants to Israel.
Many participants held signs saying “Je Suis Charlie,” or “Israel is Charlie,” written in Hebrew. The city said it was hoisting 1,500 French flags throughout Jerusalem, and setting up a makeshift memorial downtown where people could post sympathy notes.
Many Israelis have identified with France, both because of Israel’s long history battling Islamic militants and because four of the victims in Paris were Jewish.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a delegation to attend the mass rally in Paris. The Israeli leader called on French Jews to move to Israel amid a rising tide of attacks on their community. He also announced that the four Jewish victims, killed in a hostage standoff at a kosher supermarket, were expected to be buried in Israel.
Hundreds of people rallied in downtown Sydney’s Martin Place, a plaza where a shotgun-wielding Islamic State movement supporter took 18 people hostage in a cafe last month. The standoff ended 16 hours later when police stormed the cafe in a barrage of gunfire to free the captives. Two of the hostages and the gunman died.
More than 500 Australians and French nationals stood side by side holding signs bearing the words “Je suis Charlie” – French for “I am Charlie” – and “Freedom” as they marched in condemnation of the Paris attacks.
“We have to stand united,” France’s ambassador to Australia, Christophe Lecourtier, told the crowd.
Among the French now residing in Sydney who attended the rally was Felix Delhomme, 27.
“People are sending a message that we’re all together,” he said. “We want to be able to maintain our freedom of speech. We are mostly concerned about the backlash there might be against the Muslim community. They’re not more responsible for what happened than I am.”
A couple of hundred people, mostly French residents of Japan, gathered in the courtyard of the French Institute in Tokyo, holding a minute of silence and singing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. They then held up pieces of paper that read “Je suis Charlie” in French or the Japanese translation.
The institute, which functions as a language school, was running as normal during the ceremony, with students shuffling in, as the French flag – tied with a black ribbon – hung over the balcony.
“I came here to give support to fellow artists and I believe we should stand so these things don’t happen again,” said Alexandre Kerbam, 43, a French resident of Japan who works as a body painter and hair stylist.
On Saturday, hundreds of mostly French-speaking New Yorkers braved below-freezing temperatures and held pens aloft at a rally in Washington Square Park, where a leather-clad pole dancer gyrated in a provocative display meant to reflect the over-the-top cartoons in Charlie Hebdo.
The dancer’s live soundtrack came from a concert grand piano hauled into the Manhattan square for the occasion as she twirled under a sign that read “Je suis Charlie.”
Olivier Souchard, a French-born New York resident who brought his family and friends, explained the fierce support for freedom of expression that drove Charlie Hebdo’s images of the Prophet Mohammed.
“What we are afraid of is less freedom for more security – it’s muzzling,” Souchard said. He said he’s been in touch with his friend Philippe Lancon, a Charlie Hebdo columnist who is recovering from surgery after being shot in the face in the attack.
Associated Press journalists Jill Lawless in London, Vladimir Kondrashov in Moscow, iDiaa Hadid in Beirut, Rod McGuirk in Sydney, Kaori Hitomi in Tokyo, Harold Heckle in Madrid, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Moshe Edri in Jerusalem, and Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.
© 2015 The Canadian Press