By Carolyn Waudby
On Wednesday January 7 I found myself in the midst of one of France’s major and most shocking news events since the Second World War.
Just before boarding Eurostar to Paris for a short break, my husband, fellow journalism lecturer and author Dr.David Clarke, saw a news story on Twitter reporting that 12 people at the magazine Charlie Hebdo had been shot dead in the capital.
The scale of the incident quickly became apparent as camera crews and journalists from international media organisations filed into our carriage.
At the Gard du Nord and on the metro to the upper Marais where we were staying, everything appeared normal. But later, we were unable to connect to the internet either on our phones or in our hotel and we had no further information on the event.
It was a tweet from a colleague in Sheffield that evening that alerted us to a huge gathering in the Place de la République just 10 minutes away from where we were eating, and we made for the square.
Displays of anger, defiance and shock greeted us. Demonstrators had climbed the statue of Marianne, the female who traditionally represents the Republic, and were calling out to the growing crowd in the name of freedom of expression. They had posted placards and candles around the base and chanted ‘Nous Sommes Charlie’ – We Are Charlie – and ‘Liberte, Egalite, Charlie va continuer’ – Liberty, Equality. Charlie will live on.
Surrounding the statue and filling the square a sombre crowd of hundreds stood in solidarity. Many carried their own placards and placed candles on the statue plinth.
Pens were also thrown into piles or arranged in symbols and statements. As the days unfolded, the square, renamed to commemorate the Third Republic in 1879, became one huge outlet for the grief and frustration of the French people.
It is a fitting location. Marianne holds an olive branch in her hand – the universal symbol of peace – and a tablet with Les Droits de l’homme’ – Human Rights in her left. Statues of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality stand with their backs against the pedestal with medallions proclaiming Work and Peace.
A young art student asked us to sign our forenames along with hundreds of others on a blank canvas with Je Suis Charlie in the centre. She said: “I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. I just wanted to do something.”
As journalists, we too felt shocked and appalled – that colleagues could be gunned down in their workplace. Then equal disbelief when shoppers in a supermarket carrying out something so routine were captured and killed. And sadness for the police cut down while doing their jobs.
The vigil in the square was made up of all ages and backgrounds, including Muslim. Far from protecting children from the brutal events, parents brought them by day to light candles for the dead and read tributes together. We stood with them.
Back in our hotel, we kept track of the unfolding stories on television, holding our breath and hoping that these terrorists at large would be stopped. When they were, there was still the knowledge that one, the wife of supermarket gunman Coulibaly, had escaped.
The only evidence of the colossal number of police and troops deployed in the capital was when our bags were searched entering Notre Dame cathedral. We were able to move about the city easily on foot and by métro.
But in the Jewish St Paul area of the Marais on Saturday after the end of the kosher supermarket siege in Port de Vincennes, side streets were almost deserted amid fears of a further attack.
In the afternoon, we visited the Église de St Étienne du Mont on the Left Bank where the shrine of St Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, is held. Geneviève is said to have saved the city from Attila the Hun by calling on its residents to remain calm and pray together. As the priest addressed the faithful at mass, he called on them to once again pray to their saint for protection in the face of the modern horror of terrorism.
Elsewhere, cafes and bistrots in Montparnasse, St Germain and the upper Marais were as busy as ever. I did not overhear any discussion of the news. These were the refuges of the Parisians and it was as if there was a tacit agreement not to discuss events and to continue life as normal – with food, with wine and with comradeship.
We left Paris as crowds of more than 1.5 million amassed for marches in the name of freedom – the biggest peaceful demonstration in French history. Our passports were checked by both French and English controls before boarding Eurostar. Three French police officers armed with pistols patrolled the train as the media warned of England being the target of similar attacks.
Two sieges in Paris were over, but terrorism was, and is, not.