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Sunday’s historic march on the streets of Paris

Video shows the masses of people chanting the French national anthem 'La Marseillaise' as they take part in a solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris. — Video by Helen Hickey

(Published by the Malay Mail Online 12 January 2015)

Like the other 1.5 million Parisians, I set aside chores and prior engagements on Sunday and headed into the city to join a historic march that spoke of liberty and unity.

Memories of those 17 — Charlie Hebdo journalists, police and citizens — massacred in last week’s terrorist attacks were undoubtedly at the forefront of peoples' minds as they squeezed into the Metro trains running free-of-charge and full-to-bursting.

I managed to get within a kilometre of the Place de la République where the march was formally due to start at 3pm, as close as public transport and crowds would allow.

It was less of a march and more of a shuffle, simply because of the staggering number of people — twice as many turned out to pay their tributes than expected.

I was also struck by the utter silence of the thousands of people packed into the streets around me. Respectful yet watchful. No rushing, no pushing, just faces keenly absorbed in quiet contemplation.

Below: Nadia and Jamelle, both Muslims, were at the march

Nadia and Jamelle, both Muslims, were at the march. — Pictures by Helen Hickey

Then every so often a section of the crowd called out Li-ber-té! (Freedom!) — resulting in a spine-tingling chant of Li-ber-tés, over and over again.

There were spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem La Marseillaise, a deafening crescendo reached at the words Marchons, marchons! (Let’s march, let’s march!”).

Or the crowds were sparked into a frenzy of clapping, piercing the silence as it made its way over the throng of heads like a Mexican wave.

All walks of life — Muslims, Christians, Jews — united in peaceful protest. Without incident; without a hint of the barbarity witnessed over the past few days.

I would have dearly liked to have seen the 44 foreign leaders up close, walking arm-in-arm from the Place de Républic towards Place de la Nation in a truly unique display of togetherness.

Below: Six-year-old daughter of Parisian Gaelle Heyert with 'I am Charlie' written on her face.

The six-year-old daughter of Parisian Gaelle Heyert with 'I am Charlie' written on her face.

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta walking arm-in-arm with President François Hollande — France intervened in Mali two years ago to the day — to fight Islamist rebels. And most poignantly, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas walking either side of President Hollande. I know it is wishful thinking that something might blossom as a result of today... who knows?

I spoke to several people in the three hours I was there. Some were more emotional about the day than others. Let me share some of these with you:

* Gaelle Heyert, 34, bravely brought her two children along today as she felt it was an important experience for them. Today is about: “A moment of solidarity, to defend freedom of speech and freedom for all.”

* Jean, 67, Jewish, living in a Banlieue, southern Paris. It was his birthday but it didn’t stop him coming. “I am disgusted, revolted by the killings… anti-Semitism here in France is growing. Normally, I am scared to come into central Paris, but not today.” He is considering moving his family to the United States because of his safety fears.

* Semon, 80, Jewish (originally from Tunisia) living in central Paris. “I am not afraid. I respect Arabs. Some of my friends are Arabs. During the Second World War in 1944, when I was living in Tunisia, a Muslim family kindly hid me and my family in their house when the Nazis soldiers entered my town. I have not forgotten this act.”

* Nadia, 28 and Jamelle, 41. Both of Algerian descent but born in France. Nadia: “France is my country. I am Muslim. I am here because I share the same values as everyone else here today. I want to defend freedom and justice. I am against violence and extremists.”

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