Worn down by terror grief: Paris cleans symbolic statue

Paris (AFP) - Paris city workers on Tuesday set to scrubbing a monumental bronze statue which has become a battered rallying point for France's secular republic after a string of terror attacks.

The 133-year-old statue of Marianne, a symbol of the French republic, is situated on one of Paris's largest squares, the Place de la Republique, which has become a nerve centre for mourners and protesters.

On Tuesday morning workers clad in white overalls cordoned off the statue with barriers, removing the decaying flowers, torn messages of peace and candles that had piled up around its base.

They then set to tackling graffiti which has covered the pedestal of the statue, a large stone structure bearing three sculptures symbolising the national motto Liberte, Fraternite and Egalite (Liberty, Fraternity and Equality).

"It is sad, but I think it is also a good thing to erase Paris's sadness. It will be good for us," said Kheira, a 46-year-old psychologist and Muslim, wearing a bright red veil.

She said she felt "stressed and anxious," after attacks last month in which a priest was killed in a suburb of the northwestern city of Rouen and a jihadist ploughed a truck into a crowd in Nice, killing 84 people.

"This is a page that is turning, and I hope it is a real page, to really ease the sadness of Parisians," she said, watching the cleaning operation under gentle rainfall.

"I think the city needs to clean it, however it will remain a place of gathering for all Parisians affected by the attacks," said Thibaut Chaize, 32, who stopped to watch the cleaning on his way to work as a technical manager.

"Some of the graffiti is not very attractive so it must be cleaned."

- From Charlie to Madonna -

The 3.4-hectare (8.4-acre) Place de la Republique has long been a meeting place for Parisians.

But it was after an attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo -- whose offices are situated nearby -- police officers and a Jewish supermarket in January 2015, that it took on a new role in their mind.

Citizens flocked to lay flowers and candles at the foot of Marianne, as well as messages condemning the attack on freedom of expression against a magazine which had often mocked Islam.

The square filled with world leaders and citizens in a march for peace that gathered nearly two million people in the days after that attack.

Just 10 months later Parisians found themselves once again at the foot of Marianne, after a group of suicide bombers and gunmen killed 130 people around the capital.

Makeshift memorials also sprung up at the Bataclan concert hall, and restaurants and bars that were attacked.

Not long after the attacks, singer Madonna visited the Place de la Republique, singing the national anthem La Marseillaise during an impromptu mini-concert at the statue.

However in the months that followed, the grief at the square gave way to another movement, "Nuit Debout" (Up All Night), gathering advocates of a broad spectrum of causes demanding change.

The nightly gatherings, which sprung from anger over new labour laws before taking on a life of its own, on occasion ended in violent clashes with police, and later fizzled out.

The graffiti covering the pedestal of the statue bears testament to the varying causes, from "peace, love" to "no borders, no flags".

However the square retains a place of mourning, a young oak planted in the corner with a plaque in memory of those killed in the January and November attacks. Similar plaques have been erected at the former offices of Charlie Hebdo, and the spot nearby where the jihadists shot a policeman.

Bruno Julliard, deputy mayor of Paris, said the statue's makeover would continue until August 11.

He said city archivists have for months been selecting items and photographing messages at the site to be digitised and preserved.

"It is a beautiful pedestal which today is not very visible and is rather damaged," he said.