On Sunday, January 11, 2015, more than three million people across France took part in unity marches after 17 people died during three days of the deadly attacks in Paris. World leaders joined the Paris march, walking arm in arm in an act of solidarity. Author/Journalist and Paris resident Veronica Kugler was there and takes a moment to share her photos and perspective on one of the largest demonstrations in French history.
Veronica, you’ve been living in Paris for a couple of years now. What went through your mind the moment you heard about the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo and the hostage situation days later?
I was shocked when I heard about the Charlie Hebdo attack because this level of violence is not usual in France. When you turn on the news in France, you don’t expect to see shootings. It’s not like in the US, where shootings have become a regular part of the daily news. Since I was also in Paris in 2001, watching the French news about Charlie Hebdo evoked strong echoes of 9/11. As the terrorist attacks continued each day in Paris, my sadness for the senseless loss of lives at Charlie Hebdo, Montrouge, and Hyper Cacher mingled with my memories of the 9/11 tragedy.
There was an estimated 2.5+ million people who walked took to the streets in solidarity yesterday. Were you surprised by the numbers?
The huge turnout of marchers did not surprise me. Almost immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attack people spontaneously began gathering in cities across France. And each day their numbers grew in more and more cities. When it was announced that numerous heads of state would join the Unity March on Sunday in Paris, it was clear that this was going to be a historic event with unprecedented numbers. The rallies and marches drew so many people, because there were many ideas that people wanted to stand up for, such as showing their support of the victims and their families, freedom of expression, religious tolerance, unity, etc. Seeing the emotional outpour of the people on the news coverage of these rallies moved me. You’d have to be cold in the heart to not feel compelled to join the march.
How would you describe the energy at the march?
As we marched near the Place de la République it was amazingly quiet considering that the streets were filled with people as far as the eye could see both ahead of and behind us. Even though you could sense everyone’s desire to publicly denounce these acts of terrorism, the crowd exuded a feeling of peace and calm. I felt safe even in those moments when it was so crowded that I could barely move in any direction. Periodically everyone would clap for a few moments or sing La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) in the spirit of unity. You definitely felt a sense of solidarity and common purpose amongst everyone there.
You also brought your children along with you. What do you hope they gain from the experience?
Taking my kids to the Unity March was an opportunity for them to see with their own eyes an event that will be in future history books. Last year, I showed my kids the “Eyes on the Prize” American Civil Rights series to teach them about our history as African Americans but also to teach them that change in societies can come from regular everyday people coming together to stand up for their beliefs and fight for their rights. I want my kids to grow up knowing that we cannot take our rights for granted and that it is important to stand up for them. The French have a long history of protesting and standing up for their rights. The Unity March embodies the French spirit and determination that I have studied for over half my life. But for the first time, instead of reading about it in a text book, I was there in the heart of it. My kids and I were four of the 1.6 million people marching to honor the victims and to stand up for our rights, and my kids will always have this experience as part of their personal history.
What is the single most important message you would like share with our readers about Paris?
France has long been my favorite country and now experiencing the country’s reaction to this terrorist tragedy reaffirms my love for this country. This morning as I stood alone at my neighborhood newsstand buying a paper with coverage of the Unity March, a French man walked up to me, shook my hand and said a few words before continuing his way down the street. He wanted to commend me (the US) for having President Obama. I had never seen this man before, so I must assume that he’s previously seen my kids and I walking around the neighborhood speaking our obviously American English. The fact that people know who you are and go out of their way to say nice things warms my heart. Paris is a great city filled with wonderful people and from what I’ve seen in the past few days, this attack is bringing out the best in people.
Veronica Kugler studied French at the University of California, Santa Cruz before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley where she graduated with degrees in Political Economy of Industrial Societies and French. She worked in strategic marketing, B2B marketing and sales, and participated in leadership development programs for telecommunication companies in San Francisco, California and Paris, France. Veronica is currently a Board member of WICE (an Anglophone association in Paris) and writes for their blog. She is also finishing writing her first book. You may email Ms. Kugler at vrtucker[at]yahoo.com