Michelle Stanistreet (pictured above) is National Union of Journalists general secretary
Visiting the site close to the Charlie Hebdo offices, along with assistant general secretary Séamus Dooley, it was impossible not to be instantly moved by the mounting tributes and memorials to the magazine’s journalists killed in cold blood days before.
To all the cartoons, flowers, candles, wall of sticky notes with messages from visitors all around the world, and Voltaire’s collected works, we added an NUJ flag and our special NUJ placard bearing Je Suis Charlie and a picture of a pencil, which had become a symbol of the free press.
During the interviews with camera crews and journalists, early in the morning when we added our tributes, I took the opportunity to explain that the NUJ’s presence, along with our own Paris branch members, was to honour and remember all of those journalists murdered simply for doing their jobs, as well as Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), Cabu (Jean Cabut), Wolinski (Georges Wolinski), Tignous (Bernard Verlhac), Bernard Maris and the rest of their colleagues at Charlie Hebdo.
While the eyes of the world are so sharply focussed on the need to defend press freedom and ideals of tolerance and democracy, it is vital to acknowledge the increasing trend for journalists to be targeted, intimidated, attacked and killed as an attempt to silence not just them, but all other journalists in their wake.
Last year 118 journalists were killed, with the death toll overwhelming the 1,000 lives lost in the past decade; murders all too often treated with impunity by governments who facilitate and sustain a political environment where journalists and journalism are threatened and targeted without justice.
Our Paris cab driver was so delighted that we were over from London and Dublin for the “manifestation” that he refused to take any money from us for the fare. Public transport in Paris was free for the day too. The mood in the Place de la République was upbeat and resolute. NUJ placards proved an unexpected hit with passing Parisians who came over and asked to have their pictures taken holding them aloft. One woman waited patiently until my poor French caught up with the fact that, as well as expressing her admiration, she actually wanted to take one away with her.
We gathered for the demonstration, taking our place at the head of the march, immediately behind the families of the murdered journalists and their magazine colleagues, a group bravely out in force despite their visibly raw and overwhelming grief.
It was a huge privilege to be joining with our French sister unions, the deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, the general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists and leaders of journalist unions in Spain, Italy and Belgium.
From our position we had a bird’s eye view of the appearance – for it was just that – of world leaders. Back at the hotel that night, it was bemusing to see how much attention their attendance got in some of the coverage, with oft-repeated lines of how they had “marched alongside” ordinary Parisians and “led the demonstration”. All of which is total bunkum.
It was the families of murdered journalists and remaining colleagues in Charlie Hebdo who led the march, followed by our contingent of trade union leaders, all wearing our white satin armbands printed with one word – Charlie. A few coachloads of heads of state were brought further back along Boulevard Voltaire, five minutes before the start so they didn’t have to endure the cold.
They posed for photographs for journalists who had been brought in by another coach, linked arms awkwardly, then managed a stroll of a couple of hundred metres down the boulevard shielded from the real marchers by security platoons, then hurriedly loaded back on buses again and whisked away. Cameron – who tweeted that morning that he was off to march alongside French people – clearly needs to get out on more demos to see how they really work. Only President Hollande came over to greet the families.
Whoever decided it was a good idea to bring together a veritable rogues’ gallery on such a day, including known oppressors of press freedom and human rights offenders, on a day when French citizens were mobilised in their millions in their defence? The prime minister of Turkey, the King of Jordan, the Tunisian prime minister, representatives from Hungary, Russia and Egypt, the Algerian ambassador, the prime minister of Israel, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to France – a country whose parlous record on press freedom was so amply demonstrated last week by the flogging of a blogger imprisoned for “insulting Islam”.
Derision was the appropriate response – one sign read: “It’s tough being honoured by the enemies of the press”. Our French sister unions made a statement today calling for these “enemies of press freedom” not to be allowed to detract from the need for a renewed focus on tolerance and unity.
The reality is everyone else on the march didn’t see hide nor hair of a head of state – their significance is a cynically manufactured one, perpetuated in some coverage but certainly not all. At the end of the day what is more important – the awkward shuffling appearance of 44 world leaders or 4 million people taking to the streets in an act of unprecedented unity?
And unity is needed more than ever. In the early hours of the previous day, Rupert Murdoch, no less, had taken to Twitter to claim that all Muslims “must be held responsible” for the murderous actions of a few extremists. “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible” was his inane yet dangerous contribution to a debate that has the ability to become febrile.
That is why it was such an amazing experience; to be present on a demonstration that brought together people in a collective show of defiance and act of solidarity. The diversity of attendance in every sense was captivating. It wasn’t just those walking in the main demonstration that took part – balconies in the buildings alongside were crowded with families watching from their homes, waving and clapping and crying as they cheered the walkers below.
There were wonderful little vignettes as we progressed down the boulevard, sartorial ones among them. There was the man who appeared at one window dressed only in his loosely-tied dressing gown, regally waving at the crowds below; the elderly lady clad in her Sunday best – hat included – and not forgetting the burly guy standing proudly in the middle of his balcony on a chilly January Sunday holding a placard aloft, wearing nothing but his pants and a rather lived-in singlet.
The slow pace of parts of the demonstration also gave plenty of opportunity to connect with the sometimes 10-deep crowds filling the pavements as we passed. Entire families were out in force. Bobble-hatted children climbed trees and clapped along from precariously waving branches. Many people simply stood crying, holding their placards and paying their silent tributes to the families of those killed, and the remaining colleagues of Charlie Hebdo as we passed.
Variations of the Je Suis Charlie slogan abounded in the crowds, together with a proliferation of pencils and pens. The trade union banner we helped carry at the head of our contingent stretched the full width of the boulevard, bearing the slogan Nous Sommes Charlie together with the logos of our sister unions, the IFJ and EFJ.
There was no shortage of more imaginative tributes either – home-made placards, skilfully painted faces, kids wearing hats fashioned into three-foot pencils, amazing cartoons, assertions of press freedom, slogans spelling out the clear blue water that exists between Muslims and extremists and philosophical puns that left you in no doubt you were in Paris: “Je pense, donc je suis Charlie – I think, therefore I am Charlie.” Children wore signs declaring: “When I grow up I will be a journalist. I won’t be afraid”. Others carried the one-word message: “Ensemble – Together”.
The atmosphere was amazing; it was a positive, determined, reflective; a unified and dignified fightback. Even the sight of snipers on rooftops did nothing to detract from the atmosphere of solidarity and coming together that embodied the day.
As well as attacking press freedom – in a manner intended to strike fear into journalists more generally, not simply cartoonists on satirical magazines – last week’s attacks were designed to create instability, to stoke fear and make sections of society turn against each other.
That is why millions of people in Paris and beyond turned out to stand up for values of press freedom, solidarity, trade union freedom, freedom to follow the faith of your choice, an assertion of peace and a rejection of violence from citizens who refuse to allow attacks to splinter them – it was a collective affirmation that collectively we will choose unity, not division.
A big two-finger salute to the Rupert Murdochs of this world.
On our return to the hotel that night, we reversed our route on the march, amazed to see that hours after we had set off thousands were still streaming down Boulevard Voltaire towards Place de la Nation. The day had darkened and the mood was quieter, but the determination and solidarity were still strong. As we arrived back at Place de la République a new addition to the Marianne monument leapt out at us – stretched up in the palm of one statue’s outstretched hand, and testament to someone’s tolerance of heights and ingenuity, was a giant pencil bearing, of course, the message Je Suis Charlie.