PARIS (Reuters) - One of Paris’s favourite sites for protests, almost empty in the immediate wake of bloody attacks on Friday, filled up again on Sunday despite a ban on public rallies and a tense atmosphere among the thousands of French demonstrators.
“Yesterday we were in shock and paralysed, today we jolted back into motion,” said executive assistant Gaelle Daligaud, holding her son in her arms at the Place de la Republique as a group sang the French national anthem.
Linda, who lost a friend in the jihadist attacks that occurred not far from the square, said she could not stay away. “Yesterday, I shut myself in, I stayed in the dark,” she said. “Today I had to go out, to be here with people.”
The square in eastern Paris, which attracted mass rallies after attacks in January that killed 17 at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket, had been all but deserted on Saturday after attackers killed at least 132 people the previous night.
The few who turned up on Saturday said others were afraid or followed police advice not to leave their homes.
And although people said they felt good about Sunday’s gathering, the crowd at one point suddenly started to run in panic towards side streets.
Nobody seemed to know why, but the sudden show of fear seemed to betray a tension Parisians still feel.
“The crowds started moving apparently without reason,” said a policeman on the scene. There were rumours of gunshots, but he said clearly: “We didn’t hear anything and all the people we’ve asked didn’t hear anything either.”
The square slowly filled up again after the short scare.
Forty-three year old Gaelle Daligaud, who came with her Moroccan Muslim neighbour Rajaa Hanine, said she wanted to be there with her “to show to those terrorists that they haven’t won, that their stupidity can’t divide us. We needed it”.
On the central statue, amid flowers and candles, a gigantic banner read: “Not afraid.”
In a corner of the square, a wall was spray-painted with the City of Paris motto “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur” - Latin for “buffeted (by waves) but not sunk”. At its feet, people had laid small paper boats.
“It feels good, it will help me feel better, I‘m so sad,” Daligaud’s neighbour Hanine said, visibly moved as she held her son’s hand.
Earlier in the day, Parisians could also be seen making the most of an unusually warm, sunny November Sunday, undaunted by the occasional police sirens.
Cafe terraces were packed during lunchtime in popular central areas such as the hip Montorgueil district. Children played in the park near Les Halles shopping centre. Joggers were out in force along the river Seine.
A community garden in northern Paris also sported a “fluctuat nec mergitur” banner. Not far away, an improvised photo exhibition on a metal gate showed pictures of people holding placards reading the same motto or others including “courage is not the absence of fear but to triumph over it.”
In some neighbourhoods of Paris and other French cities, candles were lit and put by windows at night in memory of the victims. About a third of the windows in the upper part of the Marais had candles on Saturday night as Parisians paid tribute to the victims of the attacks.
“Lights will never be put out,” one banner in another neighbourhood read.
Additional reporting by Julien Pretot, Michel Rose, Julien Ponthus, Noelle Mennella, Valerie Parent; Editing by Digby Lidstone and Andrew Callus