Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

Official: Paris unity rally largest in French history

Up to 3 million marchers flood streets across France after 17 people were killed during three days of attacks

More than a million people surged through the boulevards of Paris behind dozens of world leaders walking arm in arm Sunday in a rally for unity described as the largest demonstration in French history  — a march organized to show harmony after three days of attacks that left 17 dead. Millions more marched around the country and the world to repudiate three days of terror that killed 17 people and changed France.

As night fell, French President François Hollande joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a visit to a synagogue as authorities sought to reassure the Jewish population — Europe's largest — that it is safe to stay in France. About 7,000 of France's half-million Jews emigrated to Israel last year amid concerns for their safety and the economy.

"The entire world is under attack" from radical Islam, Netanyahu said, citing attacks in cities from Madrid to Mumbai. He said these aren't isolated incidents but part of a "network of hatred" by radical groups. At the synagogue, 17 candles were lit in tribute to the victims of the attacks.

The event capped an emotional day. Calling the rally "unprecedented" and the largest demonstration in French history, France's Interior Ministry said the demonstrators were so numerous, they spread beyond the official march route, making them impossible to count.

Later in the day, the ministry said 3.7 million people marched throughout France, including 1.2 million to 1.6 million in Paris — but added that a more precise count is impossible, given the size of the turnout.

French media estimate that nearly 2 million people participated in the Paris rally, more than when residents took to the capital’s streets when the Allies liberated the city from the Nazis in World War II. Up to 3 million people took part in marches across the country.

"It's a different world today," said Parisian Michel Thiebault, 70. He was among a crowd wildly cheering police as their vans made their way through the crowd — something unheard of at the frequent protests held in France, where police and demonstrators are often at odds.

Their arms linked, more than 40 world leaders headed the somber procession, setting aside their differences for a manifestation that Hollande said turned the city into "the capital of the world."

Hardened rivals such as Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were among the world leaders who gathered in the giant formal rooms of the Elysée Palace along with Hollande.

Some 2,200 police and soldiers patrolled Paris streets to protect marchers from would-be attackers, with police snipers on rooftops and plainclothes detectives among the crowd. City sewers were searched ahead of the vigil, and underground train stations along the march route were due to be closed down.

The march reflects shock over the worst assault on a European city in nine years. For France, it has raised questions of free speech, religion and security, and beyond French frontiers it exposed the vulnerability of states to urban attacks.

The three days of violence began with a shooting attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday and ended with a hostage taking at a Jewish grocery.

The Charlie Hebdo attackers, Chérif Kouachi, 32, and Saïd Kouachi, 34 — French-born brothers of Algerian origin — singled out the weekly for its publication of cartoons depicting and ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad. All three gunmen were killed in what local commentators have called France's 9/11.

Hours before the march, a video appeared online, apparently made by Amedy Coulibaly, one of the gunmen, before he took hostages at the grocery on Friday. In the video he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and urged French Muslims to follow his example. 

Under a blue winter sky and bright sunshine in Paris, thousands gathered early to inspect wreaths for the victims at Place de la Republique, the march's starting point. Giant letters attached to a statue in the middle of the square spelled out "Pourquoi?" (Why?) Overnight, an illuminated sign on the Arc de Triomphe read, "Paris est Charlie" (Paris is Charlie.)

More than 4 million marchers flooded streets across France, according to French media, including 300,000 in Lyon, 100,000 in Bordeaux and an estimated 60,000 people in Marseille.

Tens of thousands of people also rallied worldwide in solidarity with France, with marchers across Europe and the Middle East chanting "Je suis Charlie" and holding pens in the air. From Berlin to London and Jerusalem to Beirut, crowds waved French flags and sang France's national anthem, "La Marseillaise."

Berlin hosted one of Europe's biggest rallies outside France, with 18,000 people marching and many wearing T-shirts reading "Checkpoint Charlie Hebdo" — a reference to the Cold War’s Checkpoint Charlie in the once divided German city.

Elsewhere in Europe, 12,000 people rallied in Vienna, about 3,000 people turned out in driving snow in Stockholm, and roughly 2,000 people marched in Dublin.

While there has been widespread solidarity with the victims, there have been dissenting voices in France. French social media have carried comments from those uneasy with the "Je suis Charlie" slogan interpreted as freedom of expression at all cost. Others suggest there was hypocrisy in world leaders attending the march whose countries have repressive media laws.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whom analysts see receiving a boost in the polls because of the attacks, said her anti-immigrant party was excluded from the Paris demonstration and would instead take part in regional marches.

Daniel Benisty, a Jewish singer, and Riad, a Muslim shopkeeper, were among the sea of people from across the religious and political spectrum who packed the streets of Paris on Sunday.

"We can live together," said Benisty, 30. "It's the idea of living together because we share the same values — liberty, fraternity, equality — to live in peace and respect each other despite our differences."

"Exactly!" agreed Riad, 60, who declined to give his last name. "I think people have woken up."

Al Jazeera and news services

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