France's Tunisians overjoyed by 'Jasmine Revolution'
"I love you, my people!" The cry rang out over a crowd of thousands, as Paris's large Tunisian population flooded the streets to celebrate a revolt they felt had restored their pride and dignity.
Back in Tunisia their compatriots had launched "the first revolution in the Arab world", ousting authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of iron-fisted rule and driving his hated clan into inglorious exile.
Tunisia's future as a stable democracy is far from assured, but for one day at least the mood was of joy and victory, and the possibilities suddenly opened up by the regime's unexpectedly swift collapse.
"Since the Romans destroyed Carthage, the Tunisian people has seen nothing but suffering. It has awoken and freed itself from fear," declared Fathi Tlili, who leads a union for Tunisian immigrant workers in France
"Now we must organise to create democracy! It's magnificent!"
Around him in the Place de la Republique, a traditional Paris gathering place for demonstrations, veteran activists burst into tears as they thought they saw the dreams of their fathers' realised.
"I've been campaigning since I was 17. I've known prison, and exile. The joy I feel is like payback for the tens of thousands of pamphlets I've handed out, for the years of anguish, for lost friends," said 57-year-old Tarek Ben Biba.
"What is extraordinary is the young people who have given us all a message of universal importance: they died for freedom," he declared. "And the first among them is Mohamed Bouazizi."
Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate reduced to selling fruit and vegetables by the roadside to scrape a living, set himself on fire and died on December 17 in Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia.
When police seized his stock his desperate final act struck a chord with a vast swathe of middle-class Tunisian society, tired of rising prices and unemployment while Ben Ali's inner circle grew ever richer.
One of those moved by Bouazizi's sacrifice was popular Tunisian singer Amel Mathlouthi, who is well known in Paris but who was that day performing in the Tunisian town of Sfax.
"I spoke about it on stage," the 29-year-old told AFP in Paris, draped entirely in rich red robes and carrying a white paper rose. "The crowd was boiling over. I knew the countdown had begun."
She described how her 75-year-old father, an old Marxist militant, had taken to the streets of Tunis and now wants to start an activist blog and build a new Tunisian democracy.
Amid the joy, the dead were not forgotten. Opposition leaders estimate that more than 100 protesters were shot dead by police during the weeks of violence leading up to Ben Ali's fall.
The Paris crowd carried black coffins, draped with Tunisian flags and banners declaring: "Thank you, our martyrs, we will never forget you."
"I'm proud of my people," said Najet Mizoni, a 53-year-old law professor at Paris VIII University. But she warned: "It's only the beginning. We have to dismantle the single party state."
"We've had a revolution, nothing will be the same again, we will not allow the people's victory to be stolen," declared 17-year-old Hedi, suddenly swept up in the idea of returning to his homeland once his studies are over.
Nearby a group of young women, their eyes heavy with kohl make-up and their long hair flowing flee chanted, fists in the air, "Tunisia free and secular!" warning that they would not allow Islamists to hijack the victory.
Floating above the marchers was a banner: "Small country, big nation."
As the march wound its way through the immigrant quarters of eastern Paris it was joined by Algerians and Moroccans, some worried, some hoping, that the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" would spread.
© 2011 AFP