In life they were scruffy, talented pests, insolent anarchists, journalists and cartoonists at a weekly obsessed with sex and religion particularly religion.

In death they were "courageous chroniclers" who had "marked generations of French people with their insolence." They had carried a message of liberty "which we will continue to defend in their name."

Those were the words of the French president François Hollande as he declared a national day of mourning Thursday for the slain journalists and cartoonists of the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The last national day of mourning in France was to mark Sept. 11, 2001.

The scruffy pests were dedicated to satire and irony. It seems fair to assume they would have found the irony deep and delicious that, in death, they have been transformed into martyrs and national heroes.

Even before Hollande spoke, there were spontaneous demonstrations, notably one involving tens of thousands of Parisians at the Place de la République, not far from the bloodied offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The crowd chanted "nous sommes tous Charlie" — we are all Charlie — a conscious echo of the editorial in the French newspaper Le Monde after 9/11 when it proclaimed "We are all Americans."

The choice of the Place de la République was fitting. The journalists of Charlie Hebdo were part of what the French call "the republican tradition."

Eleven decades ago, in 1905, the French Assembly decreed a rigid separation between state and church. The Charlie Hebdo journalists went further, waging joyous and often ferocious war against religion, all religions.

"Attacking all religions is the basis of our identity," senior editor George Biard once said. He is still alive because he was in London when the murderous attack took place.

"We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism." Those were the words two years ago of Stéphane Charbonnier, the cartoonist known as Charb who was also the editor of the weekly.

On Wednesday he was one of the 12 (including two policemen caught up in the attack) shot to death while holding an editorial meeting.

A fractured society

In pursuing Charb's goal, the weekly has regularly published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammed, which have triggered threats, a fire-bombing in 2011, the need for police protection and even harsh words from the French foreign minister who once suggested it wasn't intelligent of the weekly "to pour fuel on the fire."

Charlie Hebdo ignored him. This week's issue has on its cover a cartoon about Submission, the controversial new novel by Michel Houellebecq.

The plot is simple: just a few years down the road France elects a Muslim president in a bid to block the far-right, anti-immigration Front National from taking power.

Critics have lambasted the book for offering intellectual underpinning to a nightmare scenario often mentioned by the Front National itself. It's a gift, one said, to Front National Leader Marine Le Pen.

The murderous assault on Charlie Hebdo may be an even bigger gift.

France is a fractured society, many would say a fractured society in a fractured continent.

GERMANY-IMMIGRATION/

Several thousand marchers, opposed to Germany's policy toward asylum seekers and Islam, take part in demonstrations organized by the anti-immigration group PEGIDA in Dresden on Monday, Jan. 5. Similarly large counter-demonstrations in Berlin and elsewhere followed. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

In France's case, it has a largely disaffected Muslim population of over five million people and an increasingly influential far-right party that points to "outsiders" and "foreigners" as the source of the country's problems.

France is not alone in this, though. Next door in Germany the government of Angela Merkel looks on with alarm as anti-Islamic marches took place around the country this past week.

Germany has a similarly large Muslim population, composed principally of Turks who came as so-called guest workers in the 1960s, and who, like the North Africans who went to France at the same time, stayed.

Their children are now citizens of a country that doesn't quite accept them.

The shock here in France after Wednesday's attack is immense. It is, after all, the most murderous attack on French soil since the time of the colonial war in Algeria more than 50 years ago.

But the shock is also personal. Two of the victims — Georges Wolinski and Cabu — were grand old men of French cartooning, their work seen by millions, notably on television where Cabu made his mark doing instant cartoons for years on a popular political talk show. Wolinski had even been awarded the Légion d'Honneur.

And so the enormous emotional reaction and the call to unity. Hollande called French unity "our best weapon. Nothing can divide us."

Perhaps. But just hours earlier a French woman of North African origin talked, in tears, of going back to her office in the afternoon and finding everyone looking at her suspiciously.

One other poisonous fact. One Charlie Hebdo journalist, a survivor of the attack, reported that the killers spoke fluent French, thus igniting the suspicion that the hooded men were French radicalized Muslims.

A call for unity and a national day of mourning for courageous martyrs may mask the fissures in French society for a time, but that time may be short.

Within hours Marine Le Pen was exploiting the attack, saying time was up for denial and hypocrisy. Fingers had to be pointed, officially at Islamic fundamentalism, but unofficially, it seemed, at Muslims in general and other perceived outsiders.

This attack will linger like a poison in the bloodstream of French society.