Millions rally across France in condemnation of terror attacks

World leaders and roughly a million people waving flags and banners took to the streets of Paris today to show solidarity in the wake of the jihadi terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris last week.

Laurent Cipriani/AP
Part of the throng on the streets of Paris today.

In an uncharacteristic showing of solidarity, world leaders – often opposed in their international politics – linked arms during a Sunday march through the streets of Paris in a memorial for the victims of last week's terrorist attacks in the country.

More than 50 world leaders joined French President François Hollande, among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

The strong display of international support for France after the attacks at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket in Paris could lead to greater intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation, says Paul Vallet, a French political analyst based in Geneva.

He says footage of world leaders standing side-by-side sends a strong message of unity, but there's real work to be done by European and Middle Eastern leaders.

“In the next few days, one of the important objectives will be to see how security cooperation can be reinforced between all of these governments,” says Mr. Vallet. Leaders will be looking further at the Syria conflict, says Vallet, to find ways of neutralizing the Sunni jihadi groups that have drawn in fighters from across the Middle East and Europe, making Syria a likely vector for future international terrorism. 

Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now the head of the EU body that runs European leadership summits, said he will push for new EU security laws next week, including one that would create a European air passenger database. His proposals appear aimed at restricting the movement of potential terrorists, but Vallet says this may prove a challenge.

“This is already applicable to transatlantic flights but ever since the vast amounts of American electronic surveillance shocked a lot of European opinions, many European lawmakers have been reluctant to adopt this kind of legislation on the European front,” he says.

'Capital of the World'

On the streets of Paris today, the focus was on defiance and healing. While the French public has displayed chart-busting discontent with their government in recent polls, even the most skeptical have looked to the country’s leaders for a message of national unity since last week’s attacks.

Today's rally stretched from the Place de la Republique through the east of Paris and saw an estimated 1 million people. They were joined by 3 million more at similar rallies across the country, according to French media. 

"Paris is today the capital of the world,” said President Hollande in a statement. “Our entire country will rise up and show its best side.”

The crowd, which threatened to burst through the police barriers, was awash in banners, flags, and signs. While some were focused on freedom of expression or putting a stop to anti-Semitic acts, most aimed to be inclusive of all faiths and cultures. Many people held signs reading, “I am Charlie, I am Jewish, I am a Police Officer.”

Philippe Marie, wearing a hat on which he’d written “Je suis Charlie” in chalk, says: "I hope that tomorrow we will continue to appreciate and communicate in our diversity, to continue after today to be open to others, no matter our religion or culture.”

At war

On Saturday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the country is at war with radical Islam.

“It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity,” said Valls during a speech in Évry, just south of Paris.

But many in France’s Muslim community are worried that rhetoric about a war will translate into attacks on the roughly 2 million Muslims living in France.

Zohra, a French Muslim among the demonstrators, holds a sign reading “Not in my name.”

“It means, not in the name of Islam, because the Muslim religion is peace first and foremost. Peace and respect of one another,” she says.

Like many in France’s Muslim community, Zohra says she is concerned about the direction France will take in terms of its Muslim population. “I’m against all of these barbaric acts and these imbeciles who have made us victims."

While the reasons why some young Frenchmen are turning towards Islamist militancy are complicated, Oleg Kobtzeff, an assistant professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Paris, says a useful step would be finding a way to limit the massive coverage isolated terrorist attacks receive. He says much of the news coverage of such attacks amounts to free publicity for militant groups.

“The more we publicize what terrorists are doing and give it front page news, the more it encourages them to continue doing what they’re doing."

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