France marches in the name of freedom

Philippe is a One Young World Ambassador and a French and Australian national.

History turned a page in France this weekend.

From Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse to Bordeaux, Nice, Dijon and Damartin, over 3.7 million took part in the largest ever peaceful protest in the history of France. Fifty heads of state held hands as they led the march, which was echoed by similar gatherings in London, Washington, Berlin, Brussels, Rome, Moscow, Sydney, Tokyo and many more cities around the world. In a rare display of spontaneous unity, the world spoke as one; and yet size is not the most striking aspect of this unity march.

[[[image-1 large]]]
Above: the crowd gather during the march in Paris (AP)

The march mobilised entire families, the young and the old, with parents pushing toddlers in prams. Two million people between La Place de la République and La Place de la Nation in Paris and not one incident, not one rowdy chant, confrontation, threat, insult, injury, not even any litter once the streets emptied. Just the unified chorus of the people of France chanting the national anthem La Marseillaise, clapping and thanking police officers for their service and courage as all marched in unison, guided by the symbolism of flagpoles shaped as pencils and fuelled by the now emblematic words: “Je suis chrétien, je suis juif, je suis musulman, je suis flic, je suis Charlie, je suis Français”.

The historic march on 11 January 2015 was the very personification of tolerance, unity and national pride. The kind of pride that hasn’t been seen in France for many years. Pride brought back to the hearts of French men and women by the love for France’s greatest treasure: it’s Republic; the very embodiment of our nation’s basic principle: freedom. Pride that reminds us all what it means to be French. Pride that gives meaning to our national values Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. And most of all, pride that surpasses all political quarrel. Indeed this march was the culmination of many events of commemoration and remembrance initiated by the French themselves over the last week, all of which were organised and took place regardless of political appeal or of the presence of political figures, who were in no way the highlight when they participated on Sunday. Faced with the greatest adversity of the modern era over a period of three days, the people of France resurfaced.

“There must be a before and after”. 

This was the comment most heard at the march. A sign that the negativity, pessimism, depression and delusion that has cursed France over the past few years may finally be giving way to a renewal of hope, energy and faith in a country and a purpose. Whatever the outcome of this tragic week, one thing is for sure, France will emerge a nation more aware.

Aware of the threats and risks it faces for defending the values it holds most dear. Aware that it has, in many ways, given up on part of its youth, the youth most in need of help and attention. Aware that simply talking and debating an issue is no longer enough, but that words must be followed by actions. Aware that national education, access to jobs, social security and economic opportunity is under par, and as such contributes to inequality. Most of all aware that many in the nation have lost a sense of responsibility.

With this march the people of France took responsibility for their core principle of liberty. Liberty of religion, of the press, of opinion, of free association; all of which were present and upheld in the unity march. Terrorists like the three killed last week are as much a threat to liberty as the current political and socio-economic situation in France today. But economic policy does not push people to the streets; massacres do.

The greatest mistake, short of keeping up the status quo, would be to respond to the recent attacks with national security policy and increased law enforcement alone. France’s recently rekindled thirst for action cannot be satisfied by putting more police officers on the streets or by facilitating deportation. France needs its own, comprehensive and all-encompassing New Deal. One where political debate and action is swifter and more suited to the rhythm of the 21st Century. One where political discourse no longer prioritises the opinions of the louder extreme political parties over that of the silent majority. One where shortfalls and failures are acknowledged as such; after all the first step in solving any problem is accepting there is one. And one where responsibility means that much-needed legislation and reform is no longer subject to the comings and goings of terms in office.

It is clear that France wants action, where it has only heard the promise of action for at least the past decade. Everyone who was part of the unity march left the streets with a new sense of hope and desire for change. The terrible events of last week have obliterated the nations’ current path, and there will be an after. Time now for all the people of France, and of the world, to shape it.