In this fiercely secular and intellectual country, the terrorist attack against a satirical weekly has shaken the very foundation of French society.
But a day after suspected extremists killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Parisians say the tragedy only reinforces the values they hold dearest: freedom of expression and intellectual integrity.
Indeed, the urgency and shock felt on the streets of Paris in the immediate aftermath of the rampage quickly evolved into a sense of solidarity and defiance in the face the worst terrorist attack on French soil in modern history.
“We’ve all grown up with their cartoons, so this is a collective death, for all of France, as a symbol of France,” says Leda Pavlovchenko, a Parisian mother who lives close to the Charlie Hebdo offices. “But I think the country is acting courageously. We have no other choice but to be cohesive and act like a tribe.”
The saga is ongoing. Authorities say two brothers are suspected of being the masked gunmen, who burst into the weekly editorial meeting Wednesday and targeted the editors of the publication while uttering “Allahu Akbar,” or "God is great." The pair have been spotted in the area of Aisne in northern France, but remain at large. Their identifies were uncovered after one brother left his identification in a stolen car; a third man who officials said was involved turned himself in last night.
A separate shooting in southern Paris that left one police officer dead has increased tensions, though it's unclear whether the incident is related to the Charlie Hebdo attack. And the Muslim community of France, Europe’s largest, is worried about a fresh wave of Islamophobia.
But on Thursday morning, the bustle on the streets of Paris seemed almost ordinary. Metros were full. Lines formed outside bakeries for croissants and pains au chocolat. School doorways were packed as students and the parents of younger ones rushed to get to classrooms on time.
Security tightened across the city. Outside the offices of Liberation, the far-left newspaper that a gunman attacked in 2013, four policemen were on guard last night. This morning outside of the city’s Notre Dame Cathedral, a police officer checked every bag of incoming tourists, foreshadowing long lines ahead.
Two technicians outside the public hospital headquarters of Paris, across the street from the Paris mayor’s office, bundled the flags normally flown outside the doors of the institution, as French President François Hollande called for a day of mourning. “If we don’t have freedom of expression, we have nothing,” says Francis Busquet, holding the ladder while his colleague tied the flag to the mast. “I just hope they catch them.”
A moment of silence was held across the country at noon, local time.
Je Suis Charlie
At Republique square on Wednesday night, not far from the Charlie Hebdo offices, thousands of Parisians filled a plaza that is usually overrun by skaters and strolling families. “I am here because France is a free country,” says Frederic Delascoups, a 30-year-old architect, “and I don’t think this will silence us. I think it will have the inverse effect, look here,” he says, pointing to the statue at the center of the plaza.
On the statue, an image has been projected of one of Charlie Hebdo’s most iconic cartoons: “L’amour est plus forte que la haine,” or “Love is stronger than hate.” It was the cover that the weekly ran after it was firebombed in 2011, and portrayed two men kissing, one of them a Muslim.
“This is the right response,” says Mr. Delascoups. “We aren’t afraid.”
Parisians climbed on the statue, lighting candles and chanting “liberty” and “Charlie.” Many in the square held up #JeSuisCharlie placards, the Twitter hashtag that’s gone viral. Some attached their signs to the front of their bikes.
Unease in immigrant quarters
Despite the unity projected by President Hollande, Muslims in Paris say they worry that fears of radical Islamism will turn into a wave of Islamophobia.
A bustling bakery in the northeast of Paris, where many immigrants live, was filled with talk of the tragedy, the latest information known, and the impact this will have on the Muslim community of France. One customer voiced his concerns: “People shouldn’t start drawing similarities between Muslims and the men who committed these crimes – that’s what they want.”
One of the workers, who was born in Algeria and gave only his first name, Mohammed, says that these crimes have nothing to do with his religion. “Muslims are not that. That’s not how you react, they’re basically making their own laws,” he says.
He, like others interviewed around the community, say they are bracing for tough days ahead.