Charlie Hebdo: How did it affect ordinary Parisians whose city was under siege?

We have seen how the 'Charlie Hebdo' massacre and its violent fall-out shocked the world and its leaders, but how did it affect ordinary Parisians whose city was under siege? Harry Lambert and Verena Camesasca find out

Harry Lambert,Verena Camesasca
Monday 12 January 2015 21:50 GMT
Us tous: Parisien couple show off their Tricolour and support for Je Suis Charlie movement
Us tous: Parisien couple show off their Tricolour and support for Je Suis Charlie movement (PA)


Juliette was in high school when she heard. Her mother's text message about an attack on cartoonists didn't make sense. Everybody knew Charb, Cabu, Wolinski. They weren't just Charlie Hebdo. The teenager walked past their drawings in the street. They were in other papers. They were part of French culture.

As she walked into her geography class an hour later she was still unsure. What had happened and who was dead? Her teacher stood at the front of the room. "I don't want to teach geography today," he began, slowly. He outlined what he knew, naming the cartoonists and confirming their deaths. A stack of tests, handed in before the Christmas break, lay on his desk. They were eventually handed round.

Cedric, Juliette's father, had been texted by a friend. "Charlie Hebdo mort," the message read. He turned the radio on.

Emmanuel, 27, a lawyer, desk-bound on the other side of the city, didn't believe the news either at first. The headline across his screen wasn't unclear, but it seemed too fitting a joke for these guys. "Charlie Hebdo decimé".

That was too much. They had played on their deaths enough times to think faking them funny. But it had happened. The law office was always quiet. Now it was hushed. People sat hunched over their computers, with no one managing much more than a murmur of assent.

"Yeah, I just saw it," someone would say, without looking up. The place was friendly, but people were often detached. Work stopped, but no one gathered. There was no great meeting. No discussion. More than anything, everyone seemed slightly embarrassed.

He was glued to a trio of live blogs. An Islamist attack quickly made sense. Everyone in the room knew the magazine's history. But might it have been the far right? The thought didn't last. Video of the gunmen's flight from the Hebdo headquarters was quickly emerging. Aside from the deafening fire of Kalashnikovs, a cry of "Allāhu Akhbar!" was audible.

But culpability didn't preoccupy him. Shock had replaced disbelief; now he was just sad. He had grown up with the magazine. He wasn't a regular reader – it was light compared to Le Canard Enchaîné, France's satirical newspaper, and could be rude or in bad spirit – but he'd always glance at it; look at its cover; laugh.

He knew little about its creators. He'd never met them and likely never would have. But he felt like he'd lost someone. He drifted through the rest of the day. At 8pm he left and made for the Place de la République.

Marie-Pierre and Patrick didn't have to walk far to join him. Both journalists, they had covered the Balkans War for Le Monde and La Figaro, before ending up in Russia on 9/11. Within three days, Patrick was in Afghanistan, staying until the US invasion. Now home and in their early fifties, parents to two students, they ran a pair of magazines out of an office a few streets away from Rue Nicholas Appert, where Hebdo had its headquarters.

They knew some of the staff, had recently interviewed one of them and shared a publisher with Cabu. When they reached the square, they were struck by the silence. Thousands had gathered, but it was as quiet as mid-winter.

Juliette had made her way with a friend after class. At first, she couldn't find her father – there was no signal in the thick of the crowds. Eventually, they approached the heart of the square, where a 31ft bronze statue of Marianne, symbol of the Republic, stood atop a 51ft stone base. The statue's right hand clutched an olive branch. Somehow, someone clambered up to Marianne, past an overhanging ledge, and tied a black scarf around her arm.

Emmanuel appreciated how respectful the crowd was. But it wasn't intimate. He walked on, past the square and Hebdo's headquarters, to the nearby street where Ahmed Merabet, a police officer, had been shot by the gunmen as they fled. Sawdust had been spread over where the body lay.

He could smell it as he stood there, staring.

People came and went but few stayed. Many prayed. Emmanuel had no faith but, in his own way, he prayed, too. He couldn't stop thinking about the cop. He had been one of the bike police. You always felt for them when they rode past, thickly clad with their truncheons and radios, balancing on these thin metal frames. He started thinking about the guy's family. He didn't even know if he had one.

Thirty minutes must have passed. He turned and made for home.


Overnight, police had identified Bernard Maris, the economist and writer, among the dead. The news on the radio woke Emmanuel. Journalists who had known Maris were close to tears. It sounded like none of them had slept. As Emmanuel left for work, they cut to breaking news. Another shooting was being reported, to the south of the city. A policewoman was dead, in Montrouge. His mother taught in Montrouge. She was working and he didn't want to bother her. There was a 99.99 per cent chance she was fine. He sent her a text.

It was a day of scares, rumour and supposed threats. When a metro train came to a sudden halt, people panicked. Later, rumours swirled that the Gare du Nord, Paris' central station, was being evacuated. Reports followed of a lone gunman at Trocadero, metro stop for the Eiffel Tower. From the fourth storey of a nearby building, Emmanuel could see soldiers arriving and trucks poised. His mother had replied, but for 40 minutes, he and his office were left clueless: was Paris under attack again?

In the east of the city, Juliette's teachers had now had time to prepare. Her history teacher talked about 1881 and the Law on the Freedom of the Press. In Latin, her teacher struggled through a two-hour speech, but his message was clear. France was at war. You could now admit it. It had officially started. Things are going to happen. Maybe there will be another attack. He drifted onto Islam. A speech became a debate.

Finally, another holiday test was passed around to correct.

Marie-Pierre and Patrick had gathered their young staff outside their office at 11 that morning, close to where Emmanuel had spent the previous night standing. A group of passing girls stopped to join them. Across France, offices, shop floors and metro lines were silenced.


Twenty-four hours later, Juliette was smoking a cigarette outside her school when police cars started streaming past. A few hundred metres away, police were surrounding a supermarket. Had the police found the Kouachis? Was this a second, copycat attack?

Stuck in his office, Emmanuel was no better informed. He felt like he was living in a nightmare. Was every day going to be like this now?

Juliette checked her phone. She returned a missed call from her mother. "Someone has a shotgun – come home," her mother told her. She had to stay in school that afternoon, so she let herself be ushered back to the building. Her father was direct. "Take direction, stay quiet, stay together, don't move."

Her friends were waiting for her. They had been at McDonald's when they heard. An ashen-faced 12-year-old boy had told them. He wasn't clear. It sounded like he'd seen the shotgun.

Juliette was kept inside throughout the afternoon – three, maybe four hours. Nearby, Marie-Pierre and Patrick's daughter was similarly trapped. In Emmanuel's office, everyone had long stopped working.

The growing floral trobute near the Charlie Hebdo offices (PA)


"I was sure we wouldn't get any news. I was somehow sure they had escaped," Emmanuel recalled, the following evening. "We felt really hopeless." But as the supermarket was being surrounded in eastern Paris, the Kouachi brothers were finally cornered north-east of the city, holed up in an industrial estate near Charles de Gaulle airport.

As the news cut to two simultaneous hostage situations, the copycat gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, demanded safe passage for the Kouachis or the lives of his hostages. The police were forced to storm both buildings before an impossible situation developed.

All three gunmen were killed.

The trio had terrorised France for more than 48 hours. At first, Emmanuel felt only "soulagé". "Soulagé is, er… relieved. But sad at the same time, because those guys should have been judged," he said.

A day after their deaths, not every Parisian agreed with the lawyer. "I'm happy they're dead. It was the only solution," concluded Madame Martine – the Jewish-Moroccan owner of a falafel store in the Marais, Paris' central Jewish district, well west of the seized supermarket. In her late 40s, she has run the shop for 16 years. When police ordered her to close early on Friday, she refused.

"If I agreed to close my shop then this means I am afraid, which I am not. In Israel, this happens all the time and everything works. People go out, go to work, everything functions as normal. J'ai pas envie d'avoir peur de terrorists." Besides, "they closed the shops in the Marais, but they didn't close the roads. Does this mean the people in the street are less important than those in the shops?"

Her defiant message echoed Cedric's, delivered a few hours earlier outside a laundrette as he and Juliette waited for their clothes to dry. "I take tube, I take bus, every time. I don't stop. I will resist." He was in Paris in 1982 when a train was bombed in March, a car bomb exploded in April and a gunman killed six in a Jewish restaurant in August. A year later, two more attacks killed 13 people.

"Every time, we must be quiet, not panic. It's the same way if you live in London." But France is not at war. "War is different," he concluded.

Juliette was less convinced: "It's a discreet war." She had walked home after finally being let out on Friday. She went past the Place de la République to light a candle, called her grandmother to reassure her, and met back up with her friends to drink a beer. "The fact is, life goes on – unfortunately." For Emmanuel: "Nothing has to change because nothing can change." "You have to take this risk – it's not a huge risk, in my opinion – but you have to take it. You have to live. You are going to work in the morning, you are going back home, you are going in the street, you are going shopping.

"The real debate in the next months and years is how do you deal with people with this profile [of the gunmen]… the lost dogs? I don't know if it makes sense in English to say this."


"What happened? We had many migrants, and we have not been able to integrate them into our society."

It was Sunday, the morning of the march. Patrick had taken a break from preparing lunch. Marie-Pierre was to his right, on the other edge of their coffee table.

Over the weekend, a German paper had been firebombed for republishing Charlie Hebdo's cartoons, and a tweet saying "Je suis Kouachi" re-tweeted 18,000 times.

"Those people," Marie-Pierre continued, "the school hasn't been able to teach them what our values are. They live in ghettos where they have their own values."

At least for now, Paris was becalmed. But the future, "might be worse. It can happen anytime and anywhere in Europe."

More immediately, Patrick was wary of the day's long-awaited march.

"Up to now, it's just been a big emotional peak," he began. "Under this unity, you can feel a lot of tension… [it] hasn't been said right now, but will be said in the next few days. It can go in so many different directions. It can just take a few words for a political response to inflame everything.

"The world now is so small. Globalisation, communications… [they] created a world confrontation between different civilisations." Before, a cartoon of Charlie's "would stick in the country. It was not a few hours later running in Khyber Pass, in Kandahar. It was inside a local cultural system that everyone understood."

Patrick's scepticism of the day wasn't unique. While Wednesday's gathering was spontaneous, Sunday's was politicised. Emmanuel was weighing up whether to go. Juliette was disdainful.

"I'm kind of embarrassed to be with the President, with all these representatives – I don't care about Merkel, I don't care about David Cameron – excuse me…" To Madame Martine, it was meaningless – a "false symbol".

But this week's deaths weren't meaningless. "I am not one to say 'Je suis Charlie' but… I for one loved the cartoonists," Martine mentions, unexpectedly. "Cabu especially, because he was really the cartoonist of my childhood.

"Four talented cartoonists died in the name of freedom."

Wolinski, Cabu, Charb, Tignous. These cartoonists brought up every generation of Paris, from Emmanuel and Juliette's to Martine and Cedric's. As Cedric had put it, outside the laundrette: "I'm Charlie… we've been Charlie for a long time."

Harry Lambert is a staff writer for the New Statesman

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