PARIS – French men and women assembled Sunday morning at the heart of Paris to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks the country faced during 2015.
Cold weather and gray skies did not deter them from arriving at Place de la République square in the 11th arrondissement, which has over the past few months become the symbol of French resistance against fundamentalism.
Parents brought their small children. Young people came in couples or in groups, waving the French flag or carrying slogans such as “We are all Charlie.” Many of those present in the square were also present just one year ago, following the terrorist attacks of January 7, 8 and 9, 2015.
More than a million people marched through the streets of Paris on January 11, 2015, gathering at the Place de la République after the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher market and the gunning down of a policewoman in Montrogue, which left 17 dead and several wounded.
It was there that leaders from around the world, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, came together to express their solidarity with the French nation.
But on Sunday there were no world leaders at the square. No speeches by politicians. No shouting crowd. No party banners.
The Paris municipality, which organized the gathering, stressed beforehand the all-embracing national character of the commemorative event. Relatives of the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks, as well as citizens and security forces present at the attacks, assisted in the unveiling of a plaque honoring their loved ones and a freshly planted 10-meter-high memorial oak tree by President François Hollande and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
Sunday’s ceremony included no official addresses; It involved only the voice of a narrator, listing all the attacks perpetrated on French soil this past year, followed by music and poetry. French singer Johnny Hallyday, accompanied by two guitarists, sang “Un Dimanche de Janvier” (one January day) by Jeanne Cheral, a poem composed after the January attacks. Two young students read aloud the famous words of Victor Hugo, returning to Paris in 1870 from exile: “Paris is a sacred city. Whoever attacks Paris, attacks the whole humanity... Only fraternity can save our liberty.”
Leonard Cavalhou, 19, a student at the Paris Faculté des Lettres, lives on a street near the Place de la République. “We must not forget what happened this year. This gathering, this coming together, is significant because it reflects a sense of unity and of solidarity. It also reflects an inner understanding of the fact that our liberties cannot be taken for granted,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
Cavalhou recounted that on the evening of November 13, he was out walking with his grandfather. “We thought of ending up our evening having a coffee here, just next to the Bataclan theater, but decided against it at the very last minute. It is clear now, that terrorism can hit us anytime, anywhere. I am not afraid of walking the streets of Paris, but I do feel a sort of a constructive anger, which makes me appreciate more than ever before our way of life and our freedom,” he said.
Carine, a mother of two, traveled especially for the commemoration from outside of Paris. Her two sons and her father came with her. “We must change the paradigm, we must change our way of thinking, for us to preserve our way of life,” she said.
Her father, Gentille, added that “we do not know any more which sort of world we live in. Spiritual moments like the present one can help us reshape and strengthen our society and environment.”
Mathilde, a 16-year-old Paris high school student, came to the square along with her younger sister and parents. “I was here last year for the march, and I really felt that I should also come today. We are all very sad at home and at school, but at the same time also proud to see so many people engaged in remembering,” she said.
Indeed, when the official part of the ceremony ended, people at the square took time to personally remember the victims. A trumpet player played some famous French melodies. Members of the Egregor Vocal music group sang “Liberté” from the Voix humaine opera composed by Francis Poulenc in 1958.
Others stood in silence, or laid white flowers.
Closing the week of memorials, Hidalgo invited Parisians to reassemble Sunday evening at Place de la République and light candles in memory of the victims. She herself arrived late in the afternoon to light the memorial oak tree, demonstrating Paris’s own way of not just remembering, but clinging to life and to hope.
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