March in Paris Brings “Fraternity” into the Foreground

PARIS — More than 4 million people marched all over France yesterday, January 11, 2015. Between 1.5 and 2 millions took to the streets in Paris alone. In fact these numbers are only vague estimations, since the crowds in Paris were so large and their routes so unpredictable, that it was impossible to truly count the number of participants.

In what was France’s largest street protest in history, the French capital reconnected with its revolutionary past, and rekindled its history of demonstrating in the Paris streets. It brought to mind the film Is Paris Burning? and its iconic song which talks about the liberation of Paris in 1944: “Let freedom be attacked, and Paris become angry” (“Que l’on touche à la liberté, et Paris se met en colère”).

The song goes on to say, “the world shivers when Paris is in danger” (“Le monde tremble quand Paris est en danger”). French President François Hollande echoed this sentiment when he said to millions of protesters, “Paris [was] the capital of the world.” And indeed, around the world, people ached for France yesterday.

For those taking part in the march, it was actually quite a challenge to get to Place de la République, the point of departure for the protest. Metro stations that normally lay quiet on Sundays were packed with people. Friends and families had a hard time finding each other without cell phones, as all service was down due to overload.

Nonetheless, marchers tolerated the masses with surprising glee. They laughed with strangers about being jostled and crushed inside the train, something quite astonishing, as Parisians are usually very fierce when they believe their personal space has been violated.

In fact many participants never made it to Place de la République, which was already overcrowded an hour before the official beginning of the march. Only those who were there many hours early managed to start the march from the assigned time and place. Instead, Parisians improvised their own routes in the narrow and winding streets of the oldest parts of the city, likely making the French police overseeing the March break out in a cold sweat.

It felt like more than two centuries of protests and demonstrations had prepared the French to naturally handle the situation joyfully. No incident of chaos or violence was reported in more than 500 gatherings across the country.

While the world’s eyes focused on the unprecedented gathering of famous political personalities from across the globe, the millions of everyday people who spent this cold Sunday outside chanting that they too were Charlie, ignored the business of politicians. They just had to be there, each for their own reasons, many out of a strong desire to overcome a moral crisis that has been fracturing French society for years, and has reached a tipping point in the aftermath of the Charlie Hedbo attacks on Wednesday January 7.

Liberty and freedom of speech were, with good reason, the key words of the march. Four days earlier journalists and cartoonists were attacked because they believed that even boundless and offensive use of irony should be protected in a democratic society. While many of the protesters probably did not approve of the many insulting cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, they did agree that violence against the press and free speech could not be tolerated, irrespective of the tastefulness of the content.

On a larger level, yesterday’s march reminded the French of the meaning of the third part of their national motto, “Fraternity.” This third pillar might be the answer to the social crisis plaguing their society. Through the smile of an unknown stranger in a crowed street, or the laughter of children holding French flags, the March confirmed the importance of standing together, of living together as brothers.

What makes the “Fraternity part of the motto so special, and sometimes so neglected, is that unlike “Liberty and “Equality,” it is not a right that can be encapsulated in a set of laws or even in a Constitution. A sense of communion cannot be declared. In a democracy, one can use the words of his Constitution to demand from the State that his freedom be defended and equality guaranteed.

But “Fraternity” is built by the very members of a society, everyday, in every gesture they make. It is a responsibility that the French cannot transfer to their representatives, but a task that can only be their own. Yesterday’s march was impressive. It was a strong and reinvigorating symbol. However, it was also the mere shadow of the work that remains in the hands of the French people: fulfilling the dream of “Fraternity,” to make it the very fabric of their society rather than of a single protest, as big as it might be.

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