We have received many inquiries from the US about whether we were OK after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. We are fine, but we’ve spent the past few days riveted to the news, learning about Muslims in France, and then Sunday marching in Paris’s huge march against terror.
Brenda and I were both at the gym watching on French TV when the initial attack was reported on Wednesday. TV reports were vague about the location, and since they were in French, we didn’t pick up all the details. We had no reason to believe we were in any danger. I noticed when I went to the post office that I could no longer put my letter in their outside letter box. Only later we learned that our apartment was less than a mile south of the Charlie Hebdo office where people from the magazine staff and a policeman were assassinated. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical comic weekly magazine that frequently contains offensive cartoons. The magazine’s targets include (but are not limited to) Islam and the Middle East. Hebdo is slang for the French word that means weekly – hebdomadaire – so the name is something like Charlie’s weekly. The night of the attacks we walked near the crime scene en route to a vigil at Place de la République, where over 15,000 people rallied in support of Charlie Hebdo and freedom of the press.
Here’s a short video of the Wednesday night vigil – rally for support of Charlie Hebdo:
Here is a summary of what happened with the terrorists: From news reports there were at least 4 people involved in the terrorist activity (plus one who turned himself in). Two were brothers, Chérif Kouachi and Said Kouachi (both French citizens from the Paris suburbs) who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo. One or perhaps both of the brothers reportedly received training from Al-Queda in Yemen. The other two suspects were a man, Amedy Coulibaly (cell mate in prison with Chérif Kouachi) and his girl friend, Hayat Boumediene. Coulibaly reportedly had ties to the Islamic State. They all knew each other and had been involved with others who supported the terrorist activities in the Middle East. Amedy Coulibaly reportedly killed a police officer in the south of Paris the next day, Thursday. Police are not sure whether Hayat Boumediene was involved in any of the activity. After fleeing north of Paris towards the Belgian border, the Kouachi brothers ran out of gas, stole another vehicle, and drove back towards Paris on Friday. Police tried to capture them on the highway, shots were exchanged, and eventually the brothers were cornered, surrounded, and later killed in a warehouse north of Paris near Charles de Gaulle airport. On Friday morning Amedy Coulibaly took some 15 people hostage at a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes. He killed 4 people when he entered the store. After a long standoff, he finally succumbed to a fusillade from the police. The Jewish community in Paris has viewed Coulibaly’s attack on the store as an act of anti-semitism. They are quite fearful that there could be other similar attacks. News reports said that Coulibaly was trying to use his hostages to negotiate the release of the Kouachi brothers. Hayat Boumediene reportedly fled to Turkey, and possibly continued to Syria before any of the attacks. Police continue to investigate.
During the crisis we were wondering with each passing siren what might be happening next. Armed police were everywhere, but life on the streets was pretty normal. We went to the food market for groceries, and all the normal vendors were there. Our tutor came to our apartment for our French lesson. Stores were open, and Brenda went shopping in the Marais – a traditional Jewish neighborhood. We’re not familiar with the area outside Paris near Charles de Gaulle Airport where the two brothers were killed by the police, but we are very familiar with the neighborhood of the kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes. It is 5 miles from our apartment.
When we first came to Paris we lived in the town of Vincennes just outside the city. We used to walk east through Porte de Vincennes along the main road into Paris to go to Place de la Nation. We purchased our first roasted chicken at a butcher shop in Porte de Vincennes one night on our way home from there. We were so happy to have met a French woman in line who helped us buy a chicken! This is a good neighborhood. A French friend who lives about 500 meters from the deli posted messages on Friday morning that she had been told by the police to stay inside her apartment. It was eerie for her to watch on TV all the details at the deli just a short distance away. Our hairdresser in nearby Vincennes told us that the Police closed down all the Jewish owned businesses along her street (and presumably elsewhere in town) and told her she should close but it was her choice. She chose to remain open because her customers with appointments still showed up.
After the terrorist activity had ceased, the President of France, François Holland, called for a march in Paris to support freedom of the press and to honor all the victims of the attack. He invited all Parisians to participate, as well as leaders from other countries. On Sunday more than 1.5 million people marched in Paris from Place de la République to Place de la Nation. More than 30 world leaders participated, though we noticed that the President and other senior officials from the US stayed away. Considering the occasion that seemed odd. We did our best to represent the country, about 100,000 rows back from the heads of state. News reporters have described it as one of the most significant events (and largest crowds) here since the World War II parades following the liberation of Paris.
You can get an idea of what the march was like from this video of three short clips, first of people spontaneously singing La Marseillaise, then panning around the crowd as we stood at the beginning, and then marching along the route:
When we arrived at Place de la République, the weather was in the low ’40s and somewhat windy. We stood perhaps 100 yards from the bronze statue in the center of the square. The sculpture represents suffrage in France, and below it are figures representing the motto of the French Republic, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”. Thus Place de la République was a fitting location to begin the march.
It went through my mind that a bomb or a shooter could have wreaked havoc with so many people jammed together. Fortunately nothing untoward happened, though ambulances parted the crowd a few times en route to help people in distress.
It was exhilarating to chant, “Charlie, Charlie”, “Liberté-Expression”, sing the French National anthem, read banners and be enveloped in the immense crowd. We shuffled for 5 hours through Place de la Republique and along the 3 kilometer route to Place de la Nation. Early on it rained softly. For a few moments a rainbow shimmered above the bronze statue in the center of the square. As darkness descended we applauded the police and gendarmes guarding side streets along Boulevard Voltaire, chanting “Merci de la Police”.
In the dark at Place de la Nation at about 7 pm, a huge crowd remained, still congregating to watch the TV reporters, hear the messages from special groups, chant some more of the slogans about Charlie Hebdo and freedom of the press, and sing La Marseillaise. Tired and a little cold, we headed out on the commuter train to meet our friends for dinner. Still, we wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
Click on this link to see a slide show of photos along the route.