Dozens of world leaders including Muslim and Jewish statesmen linked arms leading hundreds of thousands of French citizens in an unprecedented march under high security to pay tribute to victims of Islamist militant attacks.
President Francois Hollande and leaders from Germany, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Britain and the Palestinian territories among others, moved off from the central Place de la Republique ahead of a sea of French and other flags. Giant letters attached to a statue in the square spelt out the word “Pourquoi?” (Why?) and small groups sang the “La Marseillaise” national anthem.
Families of the victims, many weeping and embracing, were also at the front of the march along with the world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Some 2,200 police and soldiers patrolled Paris streets to protect marchers from would-be attackers, with police snipers on rooftops and plain-clothes detectives mingling with the crowd. City sewers were searched ahead of the vigil and underground train stations around the march route are due to be closed down.
According to the French Interior Ministery, 3.7 million attended the rally against extremism in France. In the capital itself, one organizer estimated that as many as 1.5 million people were crammed in the center of Paris.
“Paris is today the capital of the world. Our entire country will rise up and show its best side,” said Hollande in a statement.
The British, German and Israeli leaders were also joined by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, all of whom will march through the French capital in the same demonstration -- a world first.
Meanwhile, Family members of the 12 people killed during the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo weekly also arrived at the rally, an AFP journalist reported.
Each wore a white bandana on their head with the word “Charlie” written across.
Netanyahu, Hollande in Paris synagogue
After the rally, Netanyahu and Hollande were welcomed with loud cheers as they entered a packed Grand Synagogue in Paris on Sunday.
Parts of the crowd chanted Netanyahu’s nickname “Bibi” and “Israel will live, Israel will overcome” as the leaders arrived for a ceremony for "”all the victims” of the attacks in Paris this week.
Netanyahu said Sunday he appreciated the “very firm position” taken by French leaders against “the new anti-Semitism and terrorism” in France.
He also thanked Lassana Bathily, the Muslim employee of a Jewish supermarket who saved several hostages during a jihadist attack on Friday.
“Our common enemy is radical, extremist Islam -- not normal Islam,” Netanyahu said at the Grand Synagogue in Paris.
Here is a list of world political figures who have confirmed their attendance:
Albania -- Prime Minister Edi Rama
Algeria -- Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra
Austria -- Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz
Belgium -- Prime Minister Charles Michel
Benin -- President Thomas Boni Yayi
Britain -- Prime Minister David Cameron
Bulgaria -- Prime Minister Boyko Borisov
Canada -- Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney
Croatia -- Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic
Czech -- Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka
Denmark -- Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt
Gabon -- President Ali Bongo Ondimba
Georgia -- Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili
Germany -- Chancellor Angela Merkel
Greece -- Prime Minister Antonis Samaras
Hungary -- Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Israel -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
Italy -- Prime Minister Matteo Renzi
Jordan -- King Abdullah II and Queen Rania
Latvia -- Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma
Mali -- President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita
Niger -- President Mahamadou Issoufou
Palestine -- president Mahmud Abbas
Portugal -- Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho
Romania -- President Klaus Iohannis
Russia -- Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Spain -- Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
Switzerland -- President Simonetta Sommaruga
The Netherlands -- Prime Minister Mark Rutte
Tunisia -- Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa
Turkey -- Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
United Arab Emirates -- Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan
Ukraine -- President Petro Poroshenko
United States -- Attorney General Eric Holder
European Commission -- President Jean-Claude Juncker
European Parliament -- President Martin Schulz
European Union -- President Donald Tusk
NATO -- Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Preparations for the rally
The rally Sunday is also a huge security challenge for a nation on alert for more violence, after 17 people and three gunmen were killed over three days of attacks on a satirical newspaper, a kosher supermarket and on police that has shaken France.
More than 2,000 police are being deployed, the Associated Press reported in addition to tens of thousands already guarding synagogues, mosques, schools and other sites around France.
Hundreds of thousands of people marched Saturday in cities from Toulouse in the south to Rennes in the west to honor the victims, and Paris expects hundreds of thousands more at Sunday’s unity rally.
Unity against extremism is the overriding message for Sunday’s rally.
Top European and U.S. security officials are also holding a special emergency meeting in Paris about fighting terrorism.
The rally “must show the power, the dignity of the French people who will be shouting out of love of freedom and tolerance,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Saturday.
“Journalists were killed because they defended freedom. Policemen were killed because they were protecting you. Jews were killed because they were Jewish,” he said. “The indignation must be absolute and total - not for three days only, but permanently.”
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen said it directed Wednesday’s attack against the publication Charlie Hebdo to avenge the honor of the Prophet Muhammad, a frequent target of the weekly’s satire.