Paris, France – “Meme pas peur” is a slogan that was often heard in the French capital after the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher shootings that claimed 17 lives just over 10 months ago. The phrase, originally a childish retort literally translated as “Not even scared” but which is closer in meaning to “Who, me, scared?” has been enjoying a comeback since Friday night’s terror attacks that left at least 129 people dead and more than 350 injured, some critically.
Walking around the city this weekend, the words are visible everywhere: on hand-lettered signs in cafe windows, on chalk art on the pavement in front of the Bataclan music hall, and on giant banners draped at the base of the Marianne statue in Place de la Republique.
“Non, non, non, on n’a pas peur,” (No, no no, we’re not afraid) went the rhythmic chant heard along the Boulevard Voltaire, the site of the attack on the Bataclan and a neighbouring cafe, all the way up to Republique.
On Sunday evening, just after dark, the scene at the city’s most important public square was similar to the one after the January attacks: respectful, sombre and yet proudly defiant.
We were not supposed to be there; under the state of emergency, public gatherings are forbidden until Thursday in the capital. Nevertheless, strangers engaged in conversation in a way not often encountered in a city known more for its respect for boundaries than for friendliness.
Dogs frolicked and adults lit candles while children drew peace signs and scrawled slogans on the pavement with chalk, “Meme pas peur” among them. Students gathered around two young men with guitars singing American folk songs from the 1960s; the theme was peace, love and understanding.
‘Our difference is a facade’
Two young men near the great statue that symbolises the French Republic held signs offering “Free Hugs: So that Love Triumphs.” They were doing a steady business. Jerome Calvini, 26, a political science student, told Al Jazeera that the idea came to him on Saturday morning after a sleepless night glued to the television, radio and internet. “In these dark times, we need to give each other love and show that we’re united,” he said. “It’s kind of like, ‘hugs against barbarism’.”
At first, Calvini doled out free hugs in front of Paris’ City Hall, but said the symbolism of this informal gathering at Republique was important to him. “I’m trying to show that we’re still alive, that life goes on.”
His friend and partner-in-hugs Cedric Vergez, 36, walked over to interject. “I’ve got to admit, being out here puts me in top form after everything that’s happened,” said the banker. “I’ve been so depressed, I’ve barely slept since I heard the news. But today I decided I’d rather act than give in to sadness and anger.”
As the huggers were being interviewed, passers-by occasionally interrupted to request their services, and were promptly rewarded. “I really needed that,” said one woman, smiling. Another man was moved to tears after Calvini hugged him tight and kissed him on both cheeks.
“Thank you,” he said, wiping his eyes before moving off into the crowd.
“The first 50 or so hugs, yesterday – I cried, too,” said Calvini. “I’m an emotional sponge and yesterday was just so heavy. But today, we’re laughing and crying at the same time.”
Vergez agreed. “I think this is what we have to do as a civil society – show that we are human, that we are love.”
Turning to provide a double hug to a couple who were crying, Calvini added: “And we have to show the terrorists that our difference is a facade.”
At the centre of the hug circle, it was easy to forget that everyone was still on edge from the suicide bombings and shootings that started off the weekend.
Childish phrase for an ‘adult game’
So it was quite a shock when we heard a quick series of pops that could have been a shot or an explosion. “They’re shooting at us!” someone yelled, as screams rang out around the square. Adrenaline kicked in and we became part of a moving mass running as fast as possible away from the Place de la Republique.
Twenty-odd people took refuge in the courtyard of an apartment building on rue Leon Jouhaux, where we found ourselves in a dead end. One woman frantically pressed all of the buzzers until the door opened, allowing the group to rush in and up the stairs. People started banging on apartment doors asking for help. One opened and several panicked people managed to slip inside. But there was not enough space for us all. We made our way to the fifth floor and sat down quietly on the staircase.
But after what just happened, I'm starting to think 'meme pas peur' is a childish phrase. This is an adult game, and I am afraid.
One woman said she thought she had heard what sounded like gunfire. “But it could have been fireworks.” No one could confirm exactly what they had heard. Everyone said that instinct had directed them to run for their lives.
Hadrien Gouze, a doctoral candidate in economics, told Al Jazeera that he dropped his mobile phone in the panic. “I had barely been at the square for 10 minutes when I heard screams,” he said. “I just followed the crowd and ran as fast as I could.”
After about 30 minutes in hiding at Rue Leon Jouhaux, text messages confirmed that the panic had been a false alarm prompted by the setting off of firecrackers, outlawed in the Ile de France region since the attacks.
After having ordered people to disperse and take shelter in nearby buildings, police had at last secured the area and we were cleared to leave.
A whirring sound could be heard outside the window. “Is that a helicopter?” one man asked.
“Maybe they’re coming to rescue us,” someone else said. The group broke out in nervous laughter, and in typical Parisian fashion, vowed to meet under better circumstances for a drink. Phone numbers were exchanged.
A similar drama unfolded in the Marais a few streets away. A panicked Australian woman claimed to have seen an armed man, who turned out to be a plain-clothes policeman. In that case, reports of a pop from a light bulb apparently set off the panic.
In nearby cafes, metal shutters drawn to protect the people hiding inside went back up. People on the street hugged; parents who had lost each other in the melee embraced each other and their small child. One woman, still in shock, said the police had told her to take refuge in the nearest building and not to move.
Walking out of our hiding place and turning on to the Canal St Martin, Hadrien Gouze asked if anyone wanted to share a taxi home. Not one of us considered taking the metro or the shortcut through Republique.
Gouze described having spent part of Friday night camping out in Communist Party headquarters after a text message from a friend alerted him to the shooters on the loose. He had been sitting in a bar when he learned of the attacks.
“That hiding spot felt a lot safer than where we just were,” he said. “The thing is, I spent all day yesterday just watching all this on television, and today I really wanted to show up, to be counted and show that I cared.”
He lit a cigarette and inhaled. “But after what just happened, I’m starting to think ‘meme pas peur’ is a childish phrase. This is an adult game, and I am afraid.”
It may take more than just a slogan to beat that fear.
Follow Christine Buckley on Twitter: @christibuckley