Last year, in the wake of the brutal assault at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Paris was defiant.
As the first post-attack edition of the satirical magazine hit newsstands last January, Parisians set alarms at dawn to ensure they’d get a copy. Most were disappointed to find it had sold out before their first sip of coffee. France put on a march that drew millions, including dozens of heads of state, to the streets.
Now, as a week of commemorations kicks off to honor that time and the lives that were taken, France is more muted.
Still haunted by the Nov. 13 attack that killed 130, many of them young people out on the town on a Friday night, the remembrance has been somber and low-key. No queues formed for the anniversary edition of Charlie Hebdo out today.
“That rally is over,” says Ahmed Mahe. Business at his newsstand was typical – some bought Charlie Hebdo, most did not. His kiosk is located just a few blocks from Republique plaza, which became the impromptu gathering place of demonstrations after Charlie Hebdo and today is the main memorial site of the Nov. 13 attack.
Philippe Sarazin picked up a copy of Charlie Hebdo as he has since the attack last year, but says the horror from that event has been overtaken. "The shock has been bigger since Nov. 13," he says.
'A new gentleness'
Still, long-time Paris resident and British author Lucy Wadham, who wrote “The Secret Life of France,” argues that for all that has been lost, there has also been something gained.
Although the Nov. 13 attack didn’t lead to mass protest – prohibited by a state of emergency – it’s not necessarily fear or resignation driving the mood today, she says.
“The mass demonstrations after Charlie Hebdo were wonderful in many ways but they were not new. Demonstrating is what the French do best,” she says.
Trying to define the mood after a collective trauma is always tricky business, she says, but something uplifting stands out for her today.
“The American-born French writer Julian Green argued that the ignominies of the Nazi occupation on a population that was wedded to the pursuit of pleasure and, unlike Londoners in the Blitz, say, ill-equipped for adversity, left a nasty scar on the city and made post-war Parisians rude and selfish,” she says. “What strikes me most about the atmosphere in this city since Nov. 13 is that I feel a new gentleness and thoughtfulness among the people. Rocked to the core, Parisians can no longer display the brash invulnerability for which they're famous.”
'A terrible year'
Terrorist attacks have been part of life in Paris for decades. Most of the worst of it, in the 1980s and '90s, was spillover strife from the Middle East and Algeria. But 2015 has been defining to many. President François Hollande himself called it a "terrible year" in his New Year's address.
The attack at Charlie Hebdo happened right off the avenue Richard Lenoir, where on Tuesday President Hollande kicked off anniversary events by laying the first of three plaques to honor the dead journalists, police and security officers, and customers of a Jewish grocery. While the sidewalks here have drawn flowers and candles throughout the year, now the avenue hosts a much larger commemoration: just four blocks up sits the Bataclan concert hall, the main site of Nov. 13 attacks. Candles, flowers, and letters to those lost abound in the area.
As the first plaque was laid down, Pietro Cannas stood at a security gate in place, unable to reach his appointment at the employment agency that was shot at in the Charlie Hebdo attack. Although he’s lived through terror here before, he says for him Paris has changed irrevocably in 2015 now that anyone could become a target.
“It feels no longer Paris,” says Mr. Cannas who knows three people gunned down on Nov. 13. “I used to walk around without any problems. Now every time I see a black car with tinted windows, I pause. It stays with you.”
Ms. Wadham says that the terrorism of the past always led to searching about geopolitics.
“What feels different about these latest attacks on Paris is that we seem to be feeling them in our bodies … infecting our sleep, so that we don't look for geopolitical reasons this time but for existential ones,” she says. “People’s questioning runs along the lines of, 'what have we done to them that they hate us so much? How can we live better, safer lives?' "
Mr. Cannas also says he is witnessing the city change with the times. It might not be public, but he says Paris is still indignant.
That was the message sent out by Charlie Hebdo today. Its anniversary cover has stirred familiar controversy and condemnation, this time for depicting a god-like figure wielding a Kalashnikov.
"But it's the truth," Cannas opines about the cover, adding, “We continue, otherwise the cowards win.”