PARIS, France – Thousands gathered for a moving memorial service in Paris on Sunday, as a city and a nation paused to remember the scores of lives lost in a spate of terror attacks last year.
French President Francois Hollande presided over a somber ceremony to honor the 17 victims of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office and a Jewish supermarket last January, as well as the 130 victims of the coordinated massacre in November.
There was heavy security around the Place de la Republique on Sunday as Hollande and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, laid a wreath and unveiled a commemorative plaque near a newly planted oak tree. The Place de la Republique, a vast square in eastern Paris, has become an informal memorial and a rallying point for free speech and democratic values after the attacks. Candles, flowers and pictures of the victims lined the base of the Marianne statue, a symbol of the French republic.
The French army choir performed, and rock legend Johnny Hallyday sang “Un Dimanche de Janvier” (“A Sunday in January”) — a song referring to the march on January 11 last year, in which more than 1 million people joined world leaders to march in solidarity.
This year’s ceremony was low-key in comparison. About 1,000 people — survivors, first responders and relatives of the victims — were invited to the event early Sunday. Hollande met very briefly with the families of the victims. Later on, the square was opened to the public and was lit up in the colors of the French flag.
Hollande also made an unannounced visit to the Grand Mosque of Paris, according to an Elysee Palace spokesman.
A state of emergency is still in place in France, and people there are still struggling to come to terms with the horrendous events of last year.
“The French are hesitating between anger and fear,” said Stefan de Vries, a journalist with France 24 and a CNN contributor. “It’s very difficult for the Parisians, because they know they have been touched in the heart, but at the same time they would like their lives to go on like before — but they also know that is not possible.”
Twelve people were killed when two gunmen opened fire on January 7, 2015, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine which had angered Islamists by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The gunmen also shot a police officer.
A few days later, four people were killed in a hostage-taking incident at a kosher supermarket, bringing the final January death toll to 17.
France’s year of bloodshed culminated in the series of coordinated attacks on a concert hall, bars, restaurants and a sports stadium on November 13 that killed 130 people. ISIS claimed responsibility.
Paris, already on edge, faced a fresh scare Thursday as police shot dead a knife-wielding man on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Gabriel Rudnik came to Sunday’s ceremony to show his solidarity, carrying a sign that said, “I’m afraid but I’m here.”
“I am here to show my support and to say that we must continue to live,” he told CNN.