Masses of people joined with world leaders to fill Paris streets Sunday in a rally for unity that officials said was the largest demonstration in French history.
Hundreds of thousands more marched in cities around the country and the world to repudiate a three-day terror spree around the French capital that killed 17 people and left the three gunmen dead.Their arms linked, more than 40 leaders headed the procession – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – setting aside their differences for a demonstration that French President Francois Hollande said turned the city into “the capital of the world.”
Millions of people streamed through the streets behind them to mourn the victims of deadly attacks on a satirical newspaper, a kosher supermarket and police officers – violence that tore deep into France’s sense of well-being in a way some compared to Sept. 11 in the U.S.
“Our entire country will rise up toward something better,” the French president said.
Details of the attacks continued to emerge, with new video showing one of the gunmen pledging allegiance to the ISIS group and detailing how the attacks were going to unfold. That gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, was also linked to a new shooting, two days after he and the brothers behind a massacre at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were killed in nearly simultaneous police raids.
The attacks tested France’s proud commitment to its liberties – liberties that authorities may now curtail to ensure greater security. Marchers recognized this as a watershed moment.
“It’s a different world today,” said Michel Thiebault, 70.
Illustrating his point, crowds cheered police vans as they wove through the crowds Sunday – a rare sight at the many demonstrations that Parisians have staged throughout their rebellious history, when protesters and police are often at odds.
Many shed the aloof attitude Parisians are famous for, helping strangers with directions, cheering and crying together. Sad and angry but fiercely defending their freedom of expression, the marchers mourned the dead and brandished pens and flags from around the world.
In Paris, the Interior Ministry said, “the size of this unprecedented demonstration makes it impossible to provide a specific count,” noting that the crowds were too big to fit on the official march route and spread out into other streets.
French news media estimated up to 3 million people took part in the Paris march – more than the numbers who took to Paris streets when the Allies liberated the city from the Nazis in World War II.
“I hope that at the end of the day everyone is united. Everyone – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists,” marcher Zakaria Moumni said.
“We are humans first of all, and nobody deserves to be murdered like that. Nobody.”
On Paris’ Republic Square, deafening applause rang out as the world leaders walked past amid tight security and an atmosphere of unity in the midst of adversity. Families of the victims, holding each other for support, marched in the front along with the leaders and with journalists working for the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. Several wept openly.
“I Am Charlie,” read legions of posters and banners. Many waved editorial cartoons, the French tricolor and other national flags.
The leaders marched down Voltaire Boulevard – named after the Enlightenment-era figure who symbolizes France’s attachment to freedom of expression. One marcher bore a banner with Voltaire’s famed pledge: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.”Hollande joined Netanyahu in a visit to a synagogue Sunday night as French authorities sought to reassure the Jewish population – Europe’s largest – that it is safe to stay in France. Seven thousand of France’s half-million Jews immigrated to Israel last year amid concerns for their safety and the economy.
As night fell on the unusually unified city, some lit candles.
“It’s important to be here for freedom for tolerance and for all the victims. It’s sad we had to get to this point for people to react against intolerance, racism and fascism,” said Caroline Van Ruymbeke, 32.
At an international conference in India, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the world stood with the people of France “not just in anger and in outrage, but in solidarity and commitment to the cause of confronting extremism and in the cause that extremists fear so much and that has always united our countries: freedom.”
Meanwhile in Germany, a tabloid that paid tribute to those killed at Charlie Hebdo by reprinting cartoons from the French satirical paper mocking the Prophet Mohammad was firebombed.
The police in the northern German port city of Hamburg said no one was at the headquarters of the regional daily Hamburger Morgenpost at the time of the attack, which caused only slight damage. “Rocks and then a burning object were thrown through the window,” a police spokesman told AFP. “Two rooms on lower floors were damaged but the fire was put out quickly.”
Hamburg police said it was “too soon” to tell whether there was a connection between the Charlie Hebdo tribute and the firebombing.
France’s three days of terror began Wednesday when brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi stormed the newsroom of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people including two police officers. Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen said it directed the attack to avenge the honor of the Prophet Mohammad, a frequent target of the weekly’s satire. Charlie Hebdo assailed Christianity, Judaism as well as officialdom of all stripes with its brand of sometimes crude satire.
Police Thursday said Coulibaly killed a policewoman and the next day he seized hostages at a kosher store in Paris while the Kouachi brothers were in a standoff with police at a printing plant near Charles de Gaulle airport. It all ended at dusk Friday with raids that left all three gunmen dead. Four hostages at the market were also killed.
Five people held in connection with the attacks were freed late Saturday, leaving no one in custody, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. Coulibaly’s widow, last seen near the Turkish-Syrian border, is still being sought.
France remains on high alert while investigators determine whether the attackers were part of a larger extremist network. More than 5,500 police and soldiers were deployed across France Sunday, guarding marches, synagogues, mosques, schools and other sites.