More Than a Million March in Paris

Paris Rally Charlie Hebdo

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More Than a Million March in Paris
| published January 12, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

A common theme among the mindset of the intolerant is the limitation—or outright quashing—of a handful of core freedoms many in the democracies of the world take for granted: press, expression, assembly, religion.

Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda—both of whom appear to have been instrumental in the horrific attacks in Paris last week—have sought specifically to suppress all of these aspects of free people. This intolerance prompted what authorities have described as a sleeper cell to take violent action, first against a satirical newspaper called Charlie Hebdo—apparently in retaliation for a cartoon portrayal of the prophet Mohammed—and, a day later against civilians held hostage inside a kosher deli and grocery store.

When it was all over, 17 people were dead and France was in shock. Worse, the terror attacks have rattled France’s proud tradition of freedom and tolerance—principles which it has embraced from its earliest incarnations as a democracy.

But the survivors at Charlie Hebdo say that they have been made stronger by the brutal attack; this week, instead of the usual press run of about 30 thousand copies in French, the magazine will print more than 3.1 million copies, this time translated by volunteers into some 20 languages. If the magazine was obscure to many outside of Paris, it now may have become the most famous magazine in the world.

This was surely not the intention of the heavily-armed jihadists who stormed the editorial offices last week, guns blazing, and setting all of Paris on edge.

In response to the attacks and the tragic massacres, more than one million people filled the boulevards and avenues of Paris in an outpouring of support and solidarity not seen since hundreds of thousands celebrated the city’s liberation from Nazi Germany in August 1944. Among the hundreds of world leaders who participated in the Sunday marches were Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko—two sets of sometimes bitter rivals who were willing—on Sunday—to link arms for a day of solidarity with the French.

The march was led by French President Francois Hollande, who walked alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and Queen Rania of Jordan. The chiefs of the European Union and the European Council were also present, as were representatives of at least 40 other countries.

The White House said the United States was represented by French ambassador Jane Hartley, though there have been grumblings from around the world as to why the U.S. did not send a more authoritative figure to participate. On Monday, the White House took a beating from a room full of reporters wanting to know why someone—anyone—in a symbolically powerful U.S. post could not have attended the gathering. Vice-President Joe Biden was at home most of the weekend, the President’s weekend schedule was unavailable for review by reporters, and Secretary of State John Kerry was in Pakistan, apparently unable to change his travel itinerary. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris at the time to meet with French law enforcement and other intelligence officials, but Holder did not attend the mass rallies. Holder instead made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, such as CBS’s Face the Nation and NBC’s Meet the Press.

Also in attendance in the Paris rally: family members of those killed during the seige, along with survivors of the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Official estimates vary, but the crowds in Paris numbered between 1.3 million to 1.6 million, the largest crowds believed to have ever assembled in French history. There were also rallies in other French cities, and the Interior Ministry and other sources say that the total number of marchers nationwide may have exceeded 3.5 million. Simultaneous rallies were also held in other world cities, including New York, Madrid, Tokyo, Stockholm, London, Rome, and Sydney.

The rallies marked the end of several days of shocking violence in France—some of the worst terrorist attacks in European history. The violence began on Wednesday, when Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi—brothers who reportedly took their orders from al Qaeda handlers in Yemen—laid siege to the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical, irreverent newsprint weekly which often takes aim at religious icons and figures, as well as the hypocrisy of political figures, with a potent mix of sarcasm and ridicule. The Kouachi brothers, dressed in battle fatigues, helmets and body armor, stormed the newspaper’s offices, killing 12 people, including the editor-in-chief, two cartoonists, a bodyguard, and two police officers along the street.

The next day, with the brothers at large and thousands of French police and European law enforcement searching for them, another jihadist named Amedy Coulibaly—who had apparently participated in the Charlie Hebdo massacre—shot and killed a policewoman in Paris. At first, the policewoman’s shooting appeared unrelated, but police quickly surmised that there might be a connection. Hours later, Coulibaly and another possible accomplice entered a Kosher market and deli, taking a dozen hostages—most of them Jewish. Near the airport, the Kouachi brothers—on the run for a day and a half—found themselves cornered at a printing plant, where they attempted to forge an escape while French police tried to negotiate. Later, after several hours of tense talks, threats of violence, and with nearly all of Paris under a state of siege, police launched assaults on both locations. After violent firefights, all three gunmen were dead, along with more hostages and civilians.

Law enforcement all across Europe set in motion a hunt for Coulibaly’s wife, originally reported to have participated in the kosher market standoff, escaping in the confusion and mayhem in the moments after the siege ended. But law enforcement are now certain she made her way out of France more than a week earlier, via the airport in Madrid. She apparently made her way across Europe, and was last positively identified in Turkey near the Syrian border. Turkish intelligence agencies believe that they were able to track her cell phone to within a few miles of the border, when her signal went cold. Interpol and Turkish police have now stepped up their efforts to locate her, but many law enforcement experts now concede she may have already crossed the border into northern Syria—following the well-worn path used by thousands of other would-be jihadists who have travelled on foot to reach areas controlled by ISIS.

The terror attacks put all of France on edge, but also triggered concern among the Jewish population of France that the openness and freedoms which have created its porous, inclusive democracy might also make Jews vulnerable to terror attacks and hate crimes, especially when those attacks come in the form of small cells or lone wolf attacks. France has one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, but at least 7200 Jews have left France for Israel during the last 18 months out of concern for safety and security. There have been previous terror attacks against Jews in France, most notably the 2012 attack against Jews in Toulouse. Religious freedoms watchdog groups and human rights groups say that the number of attacks against Jews in Western Europe has been steadily on the rise in recent years, with similar incidents in Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was blunt in recent statements about the safety of European Jews, urging those willing and able to consider moving to Israel. Across all of France, and in many cities across Europe, security was tightened or supplemented at synagogues, Jewish centers, business areas, as well as in some residential areas. And despite Netanyahu’s calls for Jews to consider relocation to Israel, not everyone in France was supportive of his broad invitation. Many citizens of France, which has the third largest population of Jews in the world, consider its large Jewish community to be an essential part of French democracy and its famously multi-cultural society.

After the mass rally, Netanyahu and French President Hollande paid a visit to a Jewish synagogue Sunday night in show of support and as a symbol of security.

At the Paris rally, as throngs moved along the avenues—shoulder to shoulder from one side of the street to the other—many marchers adopted the most common symbols of solidarity with those killed. Some held aloft black signs which read Je Suis Charlie (I Am Charlie); thousands of others held aloft candles, pens, or charcoal drawing pencils. Hundreds of others waved French flags, and still others hoisted copies of recent editions of the satirical magazine.

Two of the basic concepts most brutally assaulted by the terror attacks were those of free speech and free expression. The attackers were clear about the roots of their venom and rage—they were displeased by what they viewed as the blasphemous content found within the pages of Charlie Hebdo. The magazine is often irreverent—even strident at times—in the way in which it pokes fun at political hypocrisy, social injustice, and even religion, especially religious zealousness and intolerance. The gunmen apparently chose many of their victims in the newspaper’s offices specifically for their authorship of cartoons and editorials deemed offensive to Islam.

By the start of Monday, French officials had mobilized thousands of troops and reservists, deploying some 10,000 onto French streets and into busy shopping and business areas. There are still worries that not all of the perpetrators of the attacks have been identified, and there are even greater fears that the attacks may not be over. Some French law enforcement officials also worry that the attacks at the newspaper and at the kosher market may spawn copycat attacks, or spur lone-wolf assaults by troubled but highly motivated individuals—a concern shared by American law enforcement and the FBI.

Many French law enforcement officials and European analysts believe that Coulibaly and the Kouachi Brothers may be part of a larger network of potential terrorists. Already known for their extremist views a decade ago, international records indicate that Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi spent time together in a prison in Yemen ten years ago, where they were radicalized even more while in captivity. Later, Cherif was charged and convicted of participating in the training and funding efforts to send European jihadists and extremist into northern Iraq, where they would presumably fight U.S. military forces and the Iraqi army. Both are also believed to have direct ties to radicalized fighting units in northeastern Syria; both have also been known to have admitted to friends and associates of their affiliations with al Qaeda in Yemen, and Coulibaly was known to law enforcement for his open-allegiance to ISIS.

That clear and present paper trail which followed the Paris attackers has raised concerns that someone in French law enforcement allowed the jihadists—previously under surveillance—to have slipped too easily past the watchful eyes of police. But others in law enforcement say that it is not possible to keep track of every budding terrorist or jihadist at all times, as manpower and costs are insufficient for such complete vigilance. Others have said that in a free society like that found in France, it would be neither reasonable nor acceptable to simply arrest someone for suspicion of committing of crime, even in the post 9/11 world in which the movements and conversations between potential terrorists can be more easily tracked using social media, email interdiction, and cell phone surveillance. Still, serious questions have been raised in France about how the Paris attackers were allowed to move so far in their plans for a coordinated assault without anyone in law enforcement raising a warning.

Meanwhile, of the more than 10,000 French troops mobilized for domestic duty, roughly half will be initially deployed to provide beefed-up security at some 715 Jewish-run schools across the country. The other half of the force, approximately 5,200 troops, will be positioned in public areas, busy spaces, and other so-called soft target locations, including some newspaper offices and television stations.

Asked by TV reporters if the massive military presence was truly necessary, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that “the threat is still present.” Valls also declared that France is in a state of war against terror, jihadism, and radical Islam.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Battling ISIS: Will Air Power Be Enough?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 17, 2014.

The Cost of Going Back Into Iraq; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 8 , 2014.