Je suis Charlie: My Rally Experience

My name is Fran, I’m a third year History and French undergrad and I’m just starting my second and final term in the South of France as an English assistant in primary schools.

Like many, I’m often wary of commenting on current affairs. Political dialogue is frequently dominated by the highly opinionated, the famous or the influential. This week, however, the average French man has found his voice.

The targeted killing of twelve men and women including employees of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo brought France to a standstill this week. Within 24 hours of the shooting, rallies were spontaneously organised in cities all over country. People from every walk of life had found a common threat to unite against. Seemingly overnight and without direction local libraries, bars, restaurants, train stations, schools and churches were also showing their support in whichever way they saw fit.

When I attended the rally organised in my own city, I had no idea what to expect. After all, the French are pretty good at the whole striking thing, and in all honesty I was just praying for a peaceful protest. However, I need not have worried; where there could have been so much hatred, there was support. Where there could have been bitter discrimination, there was a strong, boundary defying love. It became clear that the threat the French are fighting this week has no face, no colour, and no religion. They are unifying to simply say no to violence, and yes to freedom of speech. 

Pictures sent in by other students around France

Standing in that crowd this Thursday I made up my own mind as to what the phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) stands for. I don’t want to focus my attention on standing up for some of the ‘offensive’ content of the magazine in the name of freedom of speech. For me, this week has been about preservation; preservation of life and preservation of everything that allows us to live the lives that we lead. Freedom of speech lives in more than just cartoons to bring entertainment. From what I’ve seen this week, freedom of speech brings hope, banishes fear and creates discussion; these are all important aspects of the democratic states we live in. Amongst the banners around me on Thursday I saw ‘We are not afraid’, ‘We are all people’ and ‘We will stand together’. 

College students at the rally on Thursday. A lot of schools allowed their pupils to have the morning off to attend.

The central library in my city displayed old editions of the magazine.

As the national anthem began to seep its way through the crowd, it struck me how there was no leader, no one singular person who was telling the masses what to do, the people were and are continuing to use their freedom to express themselves as they wish, a right that is at the heart of their fight.

A few days have passed now and although there is still a heavy atmosphere of anticipation for what is to come in the wake of the tragedy, there is also an undeniable calmness that can be felt all over. I have no doubt that at work tomorrow I will be asked how I feel about everything and I will be happy to engage in a discussion about it, terrified of making no sense whatsoever (language student issues), but nevertheless proud to be asked of my opinion and having the means to do so.

So, despite it having been a dark week for France, I feel touched and honoured to have been witness to such solidarity. Currently sat watching the march in Paris, a rally that has gathered almost two million protesters, I have no doubt that this tragedy will leave a lasting legacy in France. Not, however, for being the biggest terrorist attack in France since the 60s, but as a cornerstone of French brotherhood and the protection of freedom and liberty.

The French people have shown that, despite their differences, a nation can be united when its fundamental principles are threatened.


Edited by Harriet Dunlea