The statue of Marianne, the national symbol of the French Republic, towers more than a hundred feet above Paris’s sprawling Place de la République, an olive branch in her hand.
On the evening of the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the square is bustling. Locals and tourists circle around Marianne in an almost processional way while a Joe Strummer lookalike stands up on the plinth with a guitar and microphone.
Marianne herself is bathed in the bright lights of the news crews here to cover the sombre anniversary, but the tents of almost two hundred refugees right behind them remain barely lit.
You can’t avoid these refugees. They’re right in front of you when you trudge up the stairs from the metro, whereas you need to turn yourself completely around to see Marianne and the memorials. If you’ve never been here before, you might think you’ve popped up from the wrong station.
These refugees have been camped out in Place de la République since mid-December. Most of them are asylum claimants from Afghanistan; others have fled countries like Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan. They’re demanding that the French government fulfill its obligations to asylum seekers, and provide housing and documentation that would allow them to work legally in France.
One of these is Nahid. From Kunduz province in Afghanistan, he’s one of many who’s fled the advance of the Taliban in the region. He left Afghanistan eight months ago, and has been camped out for three weeks, day and night, here at Place de la République.
In front of his tent near the entrance to the metro, I ask Nahid how he ended up in Paris.
He makes a little walking-man gesture with his fingers. “On foot,” he says matter-of-factly, his arms crossed in the evening cold.
He lists off the countries he walked through to get here. Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and now France.
“But I want to stay here,” he tells me. “I need papers. I need a home.”
As Nahid returns to his tent, I worry about this square, this place of defiant unity that has seen so many men and women, French and foreign, come through over the past year to remember and pay their respects. That sense of unity is on full display in the centre of the square, as the mourners continue to circle around Marianne and light candles like they’re at Notre-Dame.
But that sense of unity doesn’t seem to include the refugees a literal stone’s throw away.
Most of these refugees, of course, have fled terror in their own countries. If anyone in this square can commiserate with Parisians and chat about what terrorism can do to a city and country, it’s them. Tonight they may occupy the same space, but they live in different worlds.
This irony isn’t lost on Nourra Ferroudji, a community activist in Paris.
“It’s become a space of ever-increasing importance,” she told France’s RFI last week about the makeshift refugee camp alongside the memorials in Place de la République. “But what we can see is that these two spaces are sealed from each other, as if there is a wall between the memorial and their struggle.”
Ferroudji, for her part, sees hope as the refugees in the square bring more and more attention to their plight.
“These two symbolic places can coexist,” she says. “They’re so closely connected.”
But it’s becoming more and more difficult to share her hope.
Events like the New Year’s assaults in Cologne and their horribly mismanaged aftermath show us that fear and hostility towards refugees in Europe is only growing. An idiotic few are poisoning the waters for the innocent many. The wall that far-right parties are building between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is only getting higher.
Rather than being greeted with open arms, it looks like refugees in 2016 across Europe will be, like their brethren in Place de la République, pushed off to the side and left to live in the shadows.