Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

10 January 2015

Wednesday morning already feels like a very long time ago. It was late morning when smartphones across France began pinging with the terrible news of a deadly attack on the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. To begin with the facts were scarce but very quickly it became clear that this was a tragedy on a scale that France had not seen in many decades.

By 17.00, thousands of Parisians had begun pouring into the Place de la République in a show of solidarity with the 12 people killed only six hours earlier. The square's towering statue of La Marianne, which is a symbol of the Republic, was quickly adorned with candles, flowers, posters and photographs of the victims. After all, this attack had been an attack on so much of what secular France stands for. Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité are etched into buildings and monuments right across the country but that motto is also etched into the hearts of the French people. The idea that liberté was being threatened seemed so intolerable, even to those people who had not always appreciated Charlie Hebdo's humour and editorial line.

The sense of shock during these past few days has been such that people seem to want peace in order for them to reflect, though not to be alone. Having thousands of other perplexed, speechless French citizens for company appears to have been a source of comfort. Place de la République, and many other equivalent squares in towns and cities across France, has remained eerily silent since Wednesday with so many people making so little noise.

As the period of national mourning began (only France's fifth since 1945), so too did a massive nationwide manhunt involving nearly 90,000 police and military personnel. With remarkable speed, the authorities began to close in on the wanted men and by Friday morning they had been cornered at an industrial estate near the main Paris Charles-de-Gaulle Airport.

As I headed to the offices of France24 to present the Friday evening news, it started to emerge that there was now a second terrorist incident, this latest one at a kosher grocery store on the eastern edge of Paris. Passing the armed police guard on my way into the building, I walked into a newsroom with an atmosphere unlike any other I have experienced before. Journalists, commentators, terrorism experts and technicians were rushing in all directions. Live footage showed that events at the scene of both incidents were unfolding rapidly. Then came the surreal announcement of a near-simultaneous, bloody conclusion in both places.

It has been a sad week to be a journalist in France. The community is tight-knit and most people in this profession seem to have known at least one of the victims at Charlie Hebdo. It has also been a very sad week for the Paris police force which lost three officers. It must have been a heartbreaking week for the friends and relatives of all these victims.

Many people are already talking about what effects these tragedies will have on French society. Questions are being asked about how it has come to this, whether or not more attacks are imminent and what lessons can be learnt from these violent events. But a sense of unity, which some say France has lacked in recent years, has become highly visible during the course of these past few days. There also appears to be a renewed sense of pride in what it means to live in a country which tolerates every opinion, and which will stand up to anything or anyone that tries to undermine that freedom.

Tom Burges Watson is Monocle’s Paris correspondent and an anchor on France 24

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