02062016Sat
Last update: Sat, 06 Feb 2016 08pm

Silence, bells and tears for France after massacre

Office workers stood shoulder to shoulder, buses and metro trains halted, and the toll of bells and the sound of weeping broke the silence Thursday as France honoured the 12 people massacred at Charlie Hebdo magazine. "Charlie will be free!" cried a woman joining a crowd in front of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral a moment before noon (1100 GMT) when the country observed a national minute of silence.

Among the hundreds gathered on the ancient square, many were in tears or stood with their eyes closed, while some prayed and a long line formed to enter the cathedral for a special memorial mass. "When you attack the press, you attack liberty," said Jean-Paul Doussin, an elderly man who removed his beret to show his respect, despite heavy rain. "You have to fight for freedom of expression."

There was also tension, with large numbers of riot police moving through Paris in vans and camouflaged soldiers with automatic rifles on guard outside some government buildings. But the main feeling in the capital was one of sadness. At the major rail station of Saint-Lazare, staff called on travellers and workers to pause at midday. "We must stick together and save our freedom of speech," said Julie, 37, who works for the national SNCF rail company.

Another Paris icon, the Eiffel Tower, was to dim its lights at 8:00 pm. The government has called for another round of even bigger demonstrations of nation-wide solidarity on Sunday. Ten people at Charlie Hebdo - including the chief editor and renowned cartoonists - were gunned down Wednesday by two men who shouted they were taking revenge for the magazine's repeated publication of cartoons widely seen as insulting to Islam. Two policemen were also shot, one of them shot in the head at close range as he lay wounded on the sidewalk.

Shocked politicians led by President Francois Hollande were seen on television taking part in the minute's silence. Islamic organisations from across France quickly sought to distance themselves from the jihadists and called on Muslims to join Thursday's moment of silence and for imams to condemn terrorism at Friday prayers. Twenty imams went a step further by appearing together outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, along with hundreds of other people coming to express sympathy with the victims and to leave flowers.

"We are all Charlie, down with barbarity" and "Charlie will live" were among the notes left outside. "I will come here every day until Sunday. Charlie Hebdo was not my kind of newspaper, but they killed people who were there to make us smile and think," said Dominique Vivares, a saleswoman, 49. Sorrow and fear spread right through a country that has long prided itself on freedom of expression, but which for decades has struggled to integrate its rapidly growing Muslim population.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015