Sundays are usually quiet in Paris. Church bells ring. Pedestrians reclaim the streets, mothers with push chairs and fathers holding the hands of their sons. It’s peaceful, the parks and gardens of the City of Light tranquil in the morning light. But, not today. Paris saw a gathering of Biblical proportions, numberless, as people converged on the Place de la République in Paris in the biggest turnout since the end of the Second World War. I had read somewhere that one was supposed to say a special prayer if a congregation of Exodus magnitude gathered. I didn’t know the prayer, so I said the Shema. Twice, just to be sure.
The concept of ‘laïcité’ runs through French veins as freely as the Beaujolais. Shooting people in the futile hope of challenging that tradition of secularism only serves to rouse a leviathan. Which was indeed roused today. Arriving early at the Place, the flow rate was slow, determined and inexorable, a lava of people, adults and children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, old men on crutches. Most were displaying the ubiquitous ‘Je Suis Charlie’ slogan, either hand-scrawled with a crayon, printed on a scrap of paper or on a T shirt. Even the aging, bored prostitutes off the rue St Denis managed a little more than their customary encouraging smile having caught sight of the logo worn by so many.
The world was there. Leaders of nations linked arms, Hollande a few down from Netanyahu, Cameron and Merkel, a nervous Abbas close by. Armed, flak-jacketed gendarmes, police and soldats patrolled watchfully.
This was a day for the French and those who support them. Transport over the whole region was free in an attempt to persuade people to leave their cars at home. And they came. La Marseillaise was sung, shouted and bawled tunelessly, flags were waved, women wearing hijabs clutched their ‘Charlie’ signs in French and Arabic to their chests.
What can I, a gentile, say to you? “Be not afraid”? No, because I am not on the front line — the supermarket killer went after you, specifically, not me. But, if enough people say “be not afraid” and stand shoulder to shoulder with you, protected by a bulwark of democracy and freedom of thought that the barbarian, with all his guns, rage, and shabby rhetoric, is unable ultimately to penetrate, we can say with you: “No. We will not go quietly into the night.” We too can take as our own the words of the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”