“Follow the pencil!”…today’s historic Paris unity march

By Caitlin Kelly


They came in wheelchairs and on crutches.

They came carried in baby slings.


They came — like Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Association Journal who I randomly met this morning at the cafe at St. Pancras Station as we were both about to board the 8:19 Eurostar to Paris — from other countries to show their solidarity. He decided, last-minute and spur of the moment, he had to cross the Channel to lend his support in person.

They came in six-inch stilettos and black leather trousers, teens to seniors, a river of humanity that started flooding across the city by 1pm heading to Place de la Republique.

I am Charlie, I am Arab but not Muslim, I am Jewish, I'm a cop, I'm North African...
I am Charlie, I am Arab but not Muslim, I am Jewish, I’m a cop, I’m North African…

I joined them today — although to say that I marched would be inaccurate. There were far too many people to do anything that energetic or forward-moving.

We shuffled. We stood still.

We sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.

I left the Ile St Louis at 2:00 pm with no clear idea where exactly to head — or if there would even be any room for me anywhere near the planned route. I got to the nearest Metro station, (all free for the day), but started to see a river of people streaming east through every narrow street and every wide boulevard.

It was very clear they were all heading for the march, and were heading there en masse.


It was extraordinary to see so many people literally flooding every street with such determination to join one another.

It’s said that 1.5 million people were out on the streets of Paris today.

I believe it! I am so lucky to have been one of them.

I ended up thronged on a boulevard with the Place de la Bastille maybe a mile south of us; we could just barely see its distinctive gold statue gleaming in the sunshine.

It is ink that should flow, not blood; says this poster
It is ink that should flow, not blood; says this poster

A group of people carrying an enormous fabric pencil, (sagging in the middle a bit), started walking nearby and we all wondered what to do.

“Follow the pencil!” someone shouted.

People clapped.

Mohammed has a fit: "I hate being worshipped by assholes"
Mohammed has a fit: “I hate being worshipped by assholes”

People shouted “Char-lie, Char-lie, Char-lie!”

People stood in their windows looking down on us in amazement, one group of guys unfurling a banner that read “Liberte”, which was greeted by cheers.

People wore French flags and European union flags and one man had painted the French flag on his left cheek.

Many many people wore badges or buttons saying “Je suis Charlie” and many store windows held signs saying “Nous sommes tous Charlie” — we are all Charlie.

Despite the unprecedented volume of people, the mood was calm, quiet, committed.

Even though I avoid all large crowds in the U.S., here, today I never felt scared — security helicopters buzzed low overhead all afternoon and the streets nearby were lined with police and police vans, both local and national.


There were dozens of journalists and photographers, as it was a historic event.



What struck me most was how relaxed and pleasant the crowd was, at least during the time I was in the very midst of it, from about 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. when I peeled off and headed home.

No one pushed and shoved. No one showed rage or fury or any sort of anti-Muslim fervor. We simply wanted to be there.

There seemed to be no organizing principle or bullhorns or leaders.

Just millions of people of every ethnicity and age and sexual preference who cared enough to come out on a cold, sunny January morning to show their solidarity with one another, with the French journalists shot dead this week by terrorists and to remind the world — as many posters said, in French and English:

I am not afraid.

36 thoughts on ““Follow the pencil!”…today’s historic Paris unity march

  1. Oh, I love that this was not a hate fest. Can’t fight hate with hate. And it’s serendipitous that you were there and able to participate. Thank you for reminding me of our basic humanity. Some days, that seems hard to find.

  2. Unbeivably amazing… It is interesting that we feel less (no) fear abroad, yet are wary at home here in the US… That saddens me a hreat deal. But i think Americans do not have a collective consciousness as much as individuals who join alongside one another for a brief moment in time.

    I am curious about 1 word. Why “lucky”? It’s an interesting choice for an overwhelmingly emotional time. Interested in your thoughts… Glad you made it through; I’m betting this will be a highlight post of this year.

    1. Maybe that’s my defense? I am flying home on Air France and will be out in many public places here in the next week. I was even scared to get on the Eurostar this morning while knowing that security is now as high as it can likely get. I am still quite nervous.

      I am lucky to witness history firsthand. I really miss being in or near Europe.

  3. debra

    Follow the pencil, indeed…….reading your first-hand experience makes it all that much more real for those of us across the big pond. Thank you, Caitlin

  4. So glad you got to experience this. Not the horror of terrorism, but the humanity that came out to express that they are not afraid. I wrote a pist about my feelings. So many colleagues came to me this morning saying “i feel just like you.” It is a weird balance of fear and getting on with life. We have to keep on teaching, keep on teaching peace. We cannot succomb to the ngry voices in our heads that lead to fearing our brothers and sisters.

  5. Hi, Caithlin, it is a worthy post and I am really thankful to you for featuring what happenned in France these terrible days. I am Ukrainian, and Ukrainians know well such terror actions. I wish French folk peace an life, and honour their unity!

  6. I had no idea you were in Paris! (Serves me right for falling behind on my blogroll!) Didn’t make it to the march on Sunday but have been so impressed with Paris regarding all of this. If your free for a quick cafe in the next week, send me a note! I’d love to meet you and it would be a blast to speak a little English again! πŸ™‚

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