Tears, cheers but 'no fear' at Paris rally

Paris (AFP) - A metro driver rallies a packed train, a crowd applauds and cheers the police and a heartbroken man falls sobbing into President Francois Hollande's arms.

As a shaken France united after its darkest week in decades, such unusual scenes were the order of the day.

From early morning until long after sunset Parisians from all walks of life left their homes to join the sea of people rallying against the terror they faced this week, when 17 people died in a three-day killing spree by jihadists.

They came from the poor suburbs outside the city limits and from the chic quarters of the centre, they jogged, they cycled, they crammed into packed underground metro trains and when all else failed, they walked there.

But they came. For the journalists, police officers, Jews, Muslims and ordinary people killed by extremists.

"Who am I?" yelled a driver on one metro line. "Charlie!" responded the crowd, clapping, on a journey where people usually avert gazes and stay glued to their cellphones.

"I am really happy to work today and take you to the Republican march," said another driver on the Metro also to applause.

The series of attacks which started with a massacre at the Charlie Hebdo weekly on Wednesday and ended with a deadly hostage drama in a Jewish supermarket on Friday, struck as the Gallic mood was already particularly gloomy.

It is the middle of winter, the economy is in the doldrums and the president is the most unpopular in modern history.

But the tragedy spurred the greatest outpouring of patriotic spirit seen in decades, with the French flag fluttering through the air and the Marseillaise anthem ringing out through days of marches.

One of the most unexpected scenes of the day, was when a crowd burst into spontaneous applause for passing gendarmes, shouting "Thank You" -- in a country where riot police are notoriously unpopular.

Then there were the tears.

First from some marchers unable to contain their emotion, then from families of those killed in the three days of terror who wept and held hands.

One employee of the Charlie Hebdo magazine where 12 people were massacred on Wednesday fell into Hollande's arms as he greeted those affected.

Earlier, dozens of world leaders linked arms, leading the mammoth procession as over a million people crammed tightly into the main arteries and side streets of Paris.

- 'We can live together' -

Despite their differences, people came together under wintry blue skies with a defiant message: France will not be divided by fear or religious differences.

"I am French and I am not afraid" read one banner.

Daniel, a hip young Jewish singer and Riad a 60-year-old Muslim shopkeeper swapped views on the country's ordeal as the crowd gathered.

"We can live together," said Daniel Benisty, 30, who is Jewish like the four men killed when Islamist gunman Amedy Coulibaly stormed a kosher supermarket in the French capital on Friday.

"It's the idea of living together because we share the same values, liberty, fraternity, equality, to live in peace and respect each other despite our differences."

"Exactly!" agreed Riad, the 60-year-old shopkeeper. "I don't recognise these Islamists, they're not Muslims."

- 'Are the bad men coming?' -

Isabelle Dahmani, a French Christian married to a Muslim, Mohamed, brought their three children aged 11, nine and four to show them there is nothing to fear.

The nine-year-old burst into tears watching the news this week, Isabelle admitted, saying her daughter had asked if "the bad men are coming to our house?"

The oldest son teased his embarrassed sister while the four-year-old, dressed in pink from head to toe with a piece of paper saying "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) pinned to her jacket, hid giggling behind her mother's legs.

The phrase that has become the slogan of support for the cartoonists and journalists massacred at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly was seen everywhere.

"We are in a free country. We want to stop this terrorism. We want them to see and understand Republican values," Isabelle told AFP.

"But we are kind of anxious, you never know what can happen," she added.

Her husband Mohamed, who is a non-practising Muslim, said that after the attacks, "I didn't want to leave the house, I was mostly scared of retaliation."

"One must not confuse Muslims with terrorists," he said.

But not everyone went to the march.

Samir, 29, said he found it hard to condemn the Islamist attack on Charlie Hebdo, as the satirical magazine had "insulted the prophet."

Samia, 47, in another part of Paris, was annoyed for other reasons. She thinks the march "gives importance to jihadists, to these crazies."

- 'Laugh! It isn't over' -

Earlier in the morning, several joggers on their morning run stopped to pay tribute to the dead.

Lassina Traore, a 34-year-old French-born Muslim from the Ivory Coast, stopped after an eight-kilometre (five-mile) run to gently light 17 candles at the foot of the iconic republican monument in the centre of the large Place de la Republique square from where the marchers later set off.

The march is "a real sign of how strong France is. It shows that France is strong when it is united against these people," said the consultant.

As more and more Parisians poured into the spot -- and, when that became crammed to capacity, to nearby streets -- some held high cartoons drawn by the slain Charlie Hebdo staff.

One banner covered in the cartoons proclaimed: "Laugh Charlie, it isn't over."