Charlie Hebdo attacks: We walked united, but solace was short-lived

Charlie Hebdo editor reflects on France's year of terror
Charlie Hebdo editor reflects on France's year of terror

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Charlie Hebdo editor reflects on France's year of terror 00:56

Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, U.S., France, Italy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Paris (CNN)I will always remember that Wednesday of January 2015 when I saw, for the first time in my life, Parisians suddenly freezing, right in the middle of street crossings, after a phone call had just told them the news.

They all had one thing in common: they looked lost as they stood still on the pavement, lost and uncomprehending. I remember a young man in particular, on rue Montmartre. He kept repeating "Non, non, non, non" with as much rage as desolation in his voice.
That was around midday. Later in the day, when the names of the murdered started filtering out, scenes in the street took another intensity. This became personal.
Every French citizen felt as if they had lost a member of their family. I saw many tear-stricken faces that day, and for many days after. Among the 12 people killed at French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, five were among France's most cherished cartoonists. Cabu, Wolinski and Honoré in particular, in their 80s, were not only true artists and humanists, they had shaped the political humour of three generations of French people. The killers knew how deep this would hurt.
    As Riss, one of the few survivors of the attack, and now the editor and main shareholder of Charlie Hebdo, wrote in a brazenly defiant editorial on Wednesday morning: "Back in 2006, when Charlie Hebdo published the Danish cartoons featuring Prophet Mohammed, nobody thought this would one day finish in a bloodbath. France was then a secular island where we were free to mess around, to draw, to joke and to take the piss at whoever, without fearing the reactions of dogmatic people and religious fanatics."
    Paris first responder is former Charlie Hebdo columnist
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    A week before the attacks, Riss even asked the then editor, Charb, if they shouldn't get rid of their police protection. "I told him, the Danish cartoons, that's an old and forgotten story (...) But fanatics don't forget, do they. Eternity plays in their favour," he recalled in the current edition of his magazine.
    And on January 7, 2015, at 11.30 a.m. "eternity fell on us" recalls Riss. Sixty bullets shot within three minutes. When a fireman finally helped the severely injured Riss out of the room, he chose not to look back. "I didn't want to see Charlie Hebdo dead." He adding: "Jihadi losers won't see the end of Charlie; it's Charlie that will see the end of them."

    Wonderful and liberating

    Riss's determination is how most of us feel now as we commemorate the anniversary of an attack, which was immediately followed by another bloodbath, the murder of a young policewoman and of four French Jews in a kosher supermarket.
    The thought that French people had been murdered by their own compatriots was so unbearable that the nation marched as one in the biggest display of unity in 70 years. I was there, everybody was there, from the very old and very weak in wheelchairs to the very young on their parents' shoulders.
    Except that we were so many, 2 millions and probably more (the police said it had to stop counting after a while), that we had to walk in adjacent streets. Paris was an immense crowd. At Bastille, we noisily cheered the big black coaches driving the dozen heads of state joining the march: every European leader had come, alongside a couple of queens and kings, and the Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers. Half of Bordeaux was in the streets too, a third of Lyon and Marseille. In the whole of France, 4 million people marched. It felt wonderful and liberating. However, both respite and solace were short-lived.
    A few months later, homegrown jihadis struck again, this time on a much bigger scale. The eight attackers didn't target cartoonists or Jews this time, but Paris and the youth of France, sipping wine at café terraces, football fans at Stade de France and rock concert fans. When in Paris, I walk everyday passed La Belle Equipe café, where 19 people were shot down on its terrace. The pervading feeling is one of quiet anxiety; a new solemnity has entered our lives and we feel a strong determination to resist.
    So far the reactions of President Francois Hollande and his government have seemed appropriate and dignified; we accept the state of emergency and the revision of the constitution to fine-tune as it were the legislation against terrorism and the stripping of citizenship for French jihadis. We even accept the ban on marches, which alone, says it all on our state of mind.
    We are also wary. We are now engaged in a long fight, one which may last decades, against radical Islam at home and abroad. We know there will be more attacks which will strike us here again in Paris and in Europe.
    It's not a question of if but of when. So we are quietly preparing: the French Red Cross' first aid courses are oversubscribed, the French army has been deluged with applications, more that it can process, and polls suggest the French want to see the creation of a national guard. How does it feel to be French and a Parisian today, a year on from Charlie Hebdo massacre? Like reservists in a war, with "joie de vivre" more intensely felt than ever before.