On the morning of Friday, January 7, 2015, two Al-Qaeda affiliated gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that gained notoriety over the years for its various scandals especially in regards to its cartoon portrayals of Muhammad. The two gunmen killed ten staff members, a maintenance worker who was on site, as well as two police officers.
Over the next two days, a series of events unfolded in and around Paris that led to the deaths of 17 people total.
However, there was the reaction from Parisians was even more immediate.
On the night of January 7, following the appeal from various organizations, 35,000 people of all ages gathered on the Place de la République to show their solidarity with the victims of the day’s events.
At the time, the offices of the newspaper were not far from the square so the choice in location was one of proximity. Nonetheless, the instinct was spontaneous, natural, and completely logical. As the attack was perceived to be on the freedom of expression and press itself, the use of the symbolic square implicated these cherished Republican values, too.
Many who assembled held signs of “Je suis Charlie,” which had circulated on social media in the hours before. Others brandished pencils as the symbol of expression.
An even larger march was organized for the following Tuesday. Sources estimate over two million people marched from Place de la Nation to Place de la République. However, the traditional means of measuring participation in demonstrations were not able to accurately count the number of people on this day.
Ten months later, when an even more elaborately conceived terrorist plot was carried out by followers of ISIS and led to the deaths of 130 people and the injuries of another 368, the Place de la République was once again a hub of activity.
Though forbidden by local authorities to formally gather because of safety concerns, people gathered on the Place de la République to mourn and to memorialize the victims of that day.
Many came with candles, messages, and images, which they placed on the base of the Marianne statue. Wax from spent candles could be found across the square. Street cleaners had to regularly make room for new tributes.
Over the following weeks, I saw at least one minor fire started from a candle falling onto a paper message.
After no similar measure had been taken earlier that year, it was announced in December of 2015 that the Archives of Paris would make the effort of preserving drawings, photos, and other anonymous messages that were left on the square as well as at the sites of the carnage of that November evening. In the end, archivists preserved some 7,700 documents.
The square became the site of spontaneous acts of solidarity, an impromptu memorial site. Over the course of 2015, in the events of great tragedy, Parisians developed the reflex of gathering—together—on the Place de la République.