Paris attacks: A crucial time for France, but we will not be silenced

The events of the last 48 hours have felt personal to every single person who lives here

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The Independent Online

A strange thing happens when news like this is breaking, or broken. You look at everyone differently on the street. You try to work out if they know yet. You feel that, if they do, you should talk about it. That if they don’t, you should tell them. In old films, people gather around and stare through the windows of TV shops. We don’t do that anymore. We look down hard at our phones, and lose the chance of finding what we might need most: a perfect stranger, an average person with whom we share the city, who also shares our shock.

I got a text about Charlie Hebdo, when the facts were still unclear - one confirmed death leapt to 12 moments later - when I was standing by the métro at Jaurès. Jaurès is essentially a no-man’s land of multiple roundabouts. Drivers negotiate it with hard horns and reckless acceleration, and there have been times when homeless people, many of them illegal immigrants, have lived in tents on the low concrete islands between the swerving traffic. As is often the case in Paris, many different ways of living are crammed together here. Around the corner, there are cinemas each side of a wide canal where old men play boules. There’s a romantically-named Turkish restaurant, Les Délices D’amour (the delights of love). And then, if you cross the road, you find the mosque where Chérif Kaouchi is said to have been radicalised, and - I’m working the timings out as I write – the brothers must have ricocheted around the wild Jaurès roundabout in their stolen car, fresh from the slaughter of 12 people, a matter of minutes before the news broke and I stood there, reading a text.

I don’t say this to suggest I was at the centre of the action. I most certainly wasn’t, and for that I am grateful. I say this just to make the simplest of points: This city is so small. If Paris were laid on top of London, it would fit inside zone 1. That’s one of the reasons the events of the last 48 hours have felt so personal to every single person who lives here. We don’t need to see the street names on a map. Friends work in the next-door building to Charlie Hebdo offices; colleagues live at the Porte de Pantin, where the assailants ditched the Molotov cocktails in their trunk and hijacked a new car. The so-called ‘Buttes Chaumont network’, the jihadist organisation to which Chérif Kaouchi pertained, trained in and took its name from my local park. Which, in spite of this new association, remains one of the most beautiful places in the world: a grass amphitheatre filled with picnicking families and sunbathers in summer, and prams and elderly Tai Chi practitioners whatever the weather. For people who live in this city, these place names aren’t just distant words, they feel painfully close to home. They are home.

On Wednesday, going back to my flat, I passed an office open late. Everybody was still there; every single screen was a patchwork of Charlie Hebdo tributes. Yesterday, their screens looked more or less the same, it’s just that the initial lack of belief has transformed into a need to believe that it’s over. Everyone with a computer is endlessly refreshing various news sources. My partner and I have barely spoken of anything else. The nation is, as you’d imagine, obsessed.

The question is, now that this energy – this huge amount of energy - exists, what will come of it? After the gunmen are caught, this must be the story that takes centre stage. What will the repercussions be like for France’s 5 million Muslims, already widely disenfranchised, and regularly denied employment simply because of their surnames? How will Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extremist right group Front National, try to use the situation to her advantage? Of the thousands of words I’ve read today, perhaps the most pertinent come from political essayist Juan Cole: “Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.” The coming months will be a crucial time for France.

In the end, I did not talk to anyone on the street when I heard the news, and no one spoke to me. But if that human connection we crave when we hear bad news is no longer instant, it is, at least, more ambitiously orchestrated. 35,000 people came together on the Place de la République that first night; countless more of us will march on Sunday. The internet, vague podium though it is, has exploded with “Je Suis Charlie”, and, more recently “Je suis Ahmed” – for the French police officer, himself a Muslim, shot point-blank on the boulevard Richard Lenoir for coming to the defence of his fellow citizens.

Yesterday, a national day of mourning, it was widely reported in the Anglophone press that all French radio stations played John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ at midday. Not as far as I know. What I heard on Radio France was a delicate, profoundly moving speech by the CEO Mathieu Gallet. As Gallet paid tribute to his ‘confrères’, and introduced a live full orchestra who played the 2nd movement from Beethoven’s 7th symphony, you could hear within his words the type of tears that make it near impossible to speak.

Yet Gallet finished what he had to say, his voice clear and tender. If the attack on Charlie Hebdo has taught us anything, it’s that France and its friends around the world have stood up - crayons, paper, heads held high - to say they will not be silenced.