This is how I describe the French. Despite the events of Friday night they are out in the streets and cafes in force, somewhat subdued but present; there is time for drinks and laughter, hugs and solidarity, the force to say “Meme Pas Peur”, “I’m not even afraid”, a phrase kids say to bullies before they run around and do whatever it was the bully was trying to prevent them from doing. It is more than appropriate.
When I drove into Paris today for a meeting, I hadn’t intended to visit Place de la Republique, but I found myself there thanks to my lunch date, Adrian Leeds, who called and said “Susan, you’ve got to get over here.” I emerged from the metro onto a place that was thick with mourners who, in almost utter silence, stood around the statue of Marianne, a potent symbol of freedom.
There, not even a year ago, we had stood for Charlie Hebdo. Then, the crowd was muscled with energy and outrage; today was solemn, sad, tender. Mounds of flowers, potted plants, candles of every color, size, and perfume surrounded Marianne; drawings painting, notes were stuck, balanced, inserted into the jumble. The messages weren’t those of anger, but those of strength; the French are so good at thumbing their noses in the face of adversity.
International media coopted the place, their vans flanking the north side, journalists with cameras and microphones searching for the next best quote. The presence of Christian Amanpour of CNN confirmed that La Place de la République was the center of the world, at least for today.
Marches, and other public gatherings have been officially suspended in France so I was surprised to see all the people. I was even more surprised to realize that we were all involved in a collective, silent march, one of the most respectful I have ever been part of. As people finished their prayers and their thoughts around Marianne they turned to walk towards nearby Casa Nostra to pay their respects, then on to Le Carillon, and Le Petit Cambodge. It was shocking to see the bullet holes, touching to see the ocean of flowers and plants, and more paintings, poems, drawings along with the omnipresent “tricolore”, the French flag. As we all walked, pulled forward not by voyeurism but by the desire to simply do something, not a word was uttered, not a shout heard. There were tears, sighs, sadness, and then the people moved on, courageous in their numbers.
As the French do what they do so well, debate and unravel, here is a distillation of the message:
- We must not confuse daesh with all of Islam.
- We must not confuse refugees and daesh
- We must go on, in strength, with our lives.
- We must not say we are at War – only states can be at war, and daesh is not a state.
- Anger is justified, hatred is not.
- Turn the energy of the anger to constructive thought, ideas, solutions
- Come together as one, united Europe to find solutions
- Show a united, not a divided front
- Do not be afraid; Meme Pas Peur
- Remember beauty; it will return