Charlie Hebdo terrorists tried to assassinate freedom - but failed spectacularly

Mark Austin

Former ITV News presenter

By Mark Austin: ITV News Presenter

A gentle rain falls this morning on a city that has a very strange feel to it.

Paris today is quiet,sad and reflective. It is a country in mourning for the first time since the 9/11 terror attacks .Only this time the atrocity was in the very heart of the city itself.

There is great shock at the loss of 12 lives and the mindless violence that erupted here yesterday but it goes deeper, much deeper than that.

People here are offended by the assault on something they hold very dear.

Paris is a place that prides itself as a centre of art and culture but also above all of free speech, liberty and democracy.

There is a tradition of free expression here. The freedom to satirise, scrutinise and criticise and, yes, even to offend.

People stand in front of a Peace sign made with pens and pencils in Paris. Credit: Reuters

By murdering the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, the terrorists were attempting to silence them, to assassinate that freedom.

But the irony is that they have failed and failed spectacularly.

Yes it was from the terrorists point of view a well organised and well executed assault .

But you only had to be in the Place de la Republique last evening to see the extent of their failure.

A person holds a placard which reads 'Charb died free' during a gathering at the Place de la Republique. Credit: Reuters
The murders sparked scenes of grief across France. Credit: Reuters
A woman places candles during a vigil last night. Credit: Reuters

At the cradle of French democracy, thousands of ordinary Parisians gathered in protest ,announcing "Je suis Charlie" - "I am Charlie" - in tribute to the 12 victims of the attack.

Others held signs that said "press freedom has no price" or banners reading "we are not afraid". They gathered too in cities right across France, in Toulouse and in Lyon, where a public building was transformed into a candlelit shrine.

Given that the gunmen were still on the loose, this was an extraordinary show of defiance in the face of atrocity.

This morning Paris awoke to the names and the faces of the suspects in the worst terrorist attack carried out in this country for 50 years.

Police are searching for brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi following the deadly attack. Credit: Reuters

News flashes on the television here carried interior ministry alerts to be on the look out for brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, in their thirties and armed and dangerous.

And with the release of the identities, there is also a realisation here in Paris that this ghastly episode could have long term implications for a French society that has of late already been witnessing a rise in anti-Islam feeling.

When French president, Francois Hollande, called the attack an "act of exceptional barbarism" he also significantly called for national unity.

And this is the danger now for France. The politics of this country are increasingly polarised with the far right Front National making large electoral gains.

President Hollande called the attack an 'act of exceptional barbarism'. Credit: Reuters
Hassen Chalghoumi, an Imam, raises his hands in prayer outside the Charlie Hebdo offices. Credit: Reuters
Actress Lou Douillon holds a candle at a vigil in Paris. Credit: Reuters

France is consequently more socially fragmented than ever and this attack only threatens to make things worse, deepening the negative thoughts of Islam.

Also adding to the tensions is the deployment of French troops deployed in military operations in Africa to stop the growth of jihadist groups.

And there are also fears about the numbers of French nationals going to fight as jihadis in Syria and Iraq and then returning.

So many here believe this attack represents a defining moment for this country.

And far from simply being an attack of freedom of speech, it also amounts to an assault on a nation's unity.

That is what France is dealing with now and there are many very worried people here.

The social fabric of this country is being tested and as they mourn today in the drizzle, under grey skies, the people of Paris know that well enough.