PARIS: A year ago on Thursday, a terror attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo transformed a fading publication into a global symbol of freedom of expression and brought millions of people onto France’s streets in protest.
It began a string of militant outrages that culminated in a massacre in Paris: a year that shook France profoundly but also strengthened the resolve of many citizens to defend tolerance and secular values.
On January 7, 2015, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, wielding Kalashnikovs, burst into Charlie Hebdo’s offices in eastern Paris and asked for editor Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, and other four cartoonists by name before shooting them dead.
Three other editorial staff, a guest attending a meeting, the cartoonists’ police bodyguard, a caretaker and a policeman sprawled on the pavement were also ruthlessly cut down.
In a scene caught on video by a resident of an apartment block nearby, one of the men yelled “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)” — a reference to Charlie’s publication of cartoons of the founder of Islam — before they drove off. The attack was claimed by al Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula.
Charlie Hebdo’s offices had been firebombed in 2011 and other magazines in Europe which published Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) cartoons had also been threatened, but the brazen attack in the heart of Paris shocked the world.
Le Monde newspaper described it as “France’s 9/11”.
Within hours of the shootings, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie went viral, rallying millions behind the plight of a newspaper that had nearly shut down a month earlier because of a lack of readers.
The Kouachi brothers’ escape sparked terror, which rose a notch a day later when a policewoman was killed in the Paris suburbs.
That shooting was undertaken by Amedy Coulibaly, a radicalised Frenchman claiming to be working with the Kouachis.
On Friday, January 9, as thousands of police scoured the capital, Coulibaly took shoppers hostage in a Jewish supermarket in the eastern Parisian suburb of Vincennes and killed four people before police stormed the building and shot him dead.
The Kouachi brothers were eventually cornered in a printworks north of Paris and died in a fierce exchange of fire with police.
Two days later, in a grieving Paris, President Francois Hollande led a march including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in a remarkable show of compassion for France.
Along with the leaders, four million people rallied across France in a display of unity not seen since the liberation from Nazi tyranny in 1944, with Paris’ Place de la Republique the focus of the demonstrations in the capital.
But behind the apparently unified facade a difficult debate unfolded over freedom of speech.
Many Muslims soon made it clear that while they condemned the violence, they were offended by what they saw as Charlie’s racist portrayal of their faith and its followers.
In Charlie’s defence, its supporters said the magazine was part of a time-honoured French satirical tradition in which no one — from popes and business tycoons to celebrities and sports stars — is spared barbs.
When Charlie Hebdo defiantly re-appeared on newsstands a week after the attack with a front cover featuring the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with a tear in his eye under the headline “All is forgiven”, 7.5 million copies were sold but angry protests were held across the Muslim world from Chechnya to Chad.
French society meanwhile was left to ask how the killers, brought up and educated in France, became so radicalised. Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke of a “social and ethnic apartheid” in which the children of immigrants from the poorest parts of French cities had lost out.
A series of other assaults followed.
In August, a bloodbath on a high-speed train was narrowly averted when passengers led by holidaying US soldiers overpowered a heavily-armed gunman.
Then, on Friday, November 13, nine men — most of whom had fought alongside Islamic State (IS) extremists in Syria — unleashed explosives near the Stade de France stadium and opened fire on people enjoying a night out at bars and restaurants in Paris, and at the Bataclan concert hall that lies just a short walk from where the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed. In all, 130 people lost their lives and 350 were wounded.
This time, the positivity that seemed to flow from the terrible events of January was absent.
Grief and anger gripped the country, helping the far-right National Front to pick up an unprecedented 28 per cent of the vote in regional elections in December.
Hollande, donning the warrior’s cloak, increased air strikes on IS in Syria and Iraq as he promised to crush the group.
But he also seemed to strike a chord with many as he warned again and again of the perils of intolerance and sectarianism.
“We will not give in either to fear or to hate,” Hollande vowed. “To all of you, I solemnly promise that France will do everything to destroy the army of fanatics that committed these crimes.”