OFFICE workers stood shoulder to shoulder, buses and metro trains halted, and the toll of bells and the sound of weeping broke the silence yesterday as France honoured the 12 people massacred at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.
France’s iconic Eiffel Tower was also plunged into darkness when the lights normally illuminating the 324m-tall monument at night were briefly turned off at 9pm SA time in a symbolic gesture before gradually coming back on.
“Charlie will be free!” cried a woman joining a crowd in front of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral a moment before noon 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,” Jean-Paul Doussin, an elderly man who removed his beret to show his respect, despite heavy rain, said. “You have to fight for freedom of expression.”
The French capital was tense yesterday, with large numbers of riot police moving through Paris in vans and camouflaged soldiers with automatic rifles on guard outside some government buildings.
Elite French security forces also tightened the net on two brothers suspected of the slaughter after discovering an abandoned getaway car in a northeastern town. Helicopters buzzed overhead as police mounted a frantic manhunt for the two fugitives thought to be behind the bloodbath, the worst terrorist attack in France for half a century, which the gunmen said they carried out as revenge for the weekly’s repeated publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.
The two – Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34 – are French-born sons of Algerian-born parents who were already under police surveillance. One was jailed for 18 months for trying to travel to Iraq a decade ago to fight as part of an Islamist cell. Officials said they were armed and dangerous.
Late last night, police appeared to be closing in on them, as several hundred heavily armed riot officers and special forces began circling a large forest in the east of the country.
A helicopter was flying over the Forêt de Retz, an ancient woodland that covers an area greater than Paris.
A convoy of police had pulled up at a large farmhouse outside the village of Longpont, near Reims, and were seen preparing to scour the area. Local residents were warned to stay indoors.
But even as the dramatic chase unfolded, the main feeling in the capital was one of sadness.
Outside the bloodstained offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier, crowds left tributes to those massacred – including pencils representing the paper’s slain cartoonists and their stand for free expression.
“If we go silent, they [Muslim extremists] win,” summed up one retired woman who had come to pay respects among a crowd of hundreds, some of them in tears.
Ten people at Charlie Hebdo — including the chief editor and renowned cartoonists — were gunned down. Two policemen were also killed, one of them shot in the head at close range as he lay wounded on the pavement.
Yesterday, a policewoman was also killed in the capital in a shootout with a gunman wearing a bulletproof vest, but police were unable to say whether that incident was linked to the Charlie Hebdo attack although they opened another terrorism investigation.
World leaders described the attack as an assault on democracy.
Al-Qaeda’s Algeria branch praised it, citing a threat by the militant group’s founder against those who mock the Prophet Muhammed.
An emotional Charlie Hebdo columnist yesterday described the horrific scene that greeted him after his colleagues were shot dead, and said: “I couldn’t save them.”
Patrick Pelloux would normally have been at the editorial meeting that was the main scene of the attack. However, in his other job as head of the emergency room doctors’ association in France, he was attending a meeting elsewhere in Paris on Wednesday to improve links between the different emergency services.
“I was at this meeting when Jean Luc, the graphic artist [of Charlie Hebdo] called me to tell me: You have to come here quickly, they have shot at us with a Kalashnikov,” Pelloux said. “I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t. When I arrived it was dreadful,” he said, choking with emotion.
Pelloux arrived at the offices three minutes after the attack with a high-ranking fire department official, who Pelloux said acted “heroically” as he triggered the emergency response.
“And as we were taking care of the victims, they [the attackers] were still on the streets killing people,” Pelloux said.
Five of France’s best-known cartoonists were killed in the attack.
Charlie Hebdo’s 47-year-old editor-in-chief, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, who was also one of its cartoonists, was murdered along with the police bodyguard assigned to him following death threats after the paper had published cartoons mocking Islam.
Four other cartoonists — Jean “Cabu” Cabut, 76, Georges Wolinski, 80, Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac, 57, and Philippe Honore, 73 — were also slain, as were three other employees, including a well-known economist, Bernard Maris.
Pelloux described the bloody scene in the editorial meeting room.
“I think he [Charb] must have got up to insult them, or to make an obscene gesture at them or to take away their weapons.
“In the position that he died, his body was twisted in his chair; it was as if he was shot as he was getting up.
“And I know him well, he was like my brother, and I know that he would have done that to them.”
The Charlie Hebdo columnist said despite the killing of the paper’s top staff, he was “optimistic” after seeing the solidarity expressed in the wake of the attacks by both heads of state and ordinary people who had taken to the streets.
“The two things that will scare away fundamentalism are culture and freedom of the press. It’s democratic countries that must keep these things alive.”
He confirmed that Charlie Hebdo would be published as usual next Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Eastern Cape cartoonists Mark Wigget and Cuan Miles condemned the shooting.
“The shooting was a very scary thing. It is scary for the future of cartooning,” The Herald cartoonist Wiggett said. He said he did not agree with cartoons which were directed at offending people.
“We have too many other political, social and other issues here to cartoon about religion. But I don’t believe you should do cartoons just to offend,” he said.
Daily Dispatch cartoonist Miles said creating cartoons depicting religious issues was “very sticky”.
“We have even had a debate going on about whether cartoons should be published depicting Mohammed . . . There are ways to make a point about religion without offending people,” he said.
– AFP, with additional reporting by Shaun Gillham, The Telegraph