It’s 15 September at Place de La République in Paris. A manifestation, otherwise known as a manif or demonstration, has been called. It’s 4pm, and the tear gas grenades go off right on cue. The manifestation is growing, and is larger and more plural than anything I have ever seen in London. After a relatively quiet summer since the last manifestation on 5 July, today’s events signal a resurgence of resistance to France’s proposed labour market reforms.
When I arrived in Paris two weeks ago, the statue of Marianne had been stripped of all traces of the graffiti sprayed at the beginning of the Nuit debout. The little fountain that runs like a moat around her had started working again. Marianne stood as she was, returned to a symbol of the French Republic – an ambassador of progress, of which the state considers itself sole arbitrator. But last night, ‘FUCK LE FN’ (Front National) appeared. By today, she is painted again, reclaimed by the movement, with a yellow flag draped over the lions at her feet. ‘1917 – 2017’ hints towards the end of 100 years of government as we know it.
The atmosphere is tense but excitable. More loud booms. The police block every road into the Place, of which there are many. It is clear why the movement chooses this as its battleground – it takes about 100 police just to form a ring around it. From the morning of 15 September, the authorities have blocked vélo stations: a tactical attempt to slow those using bicycles to enter and exit the manifestation. Police cut the Metro line to the Place all day. All buses are diverted around the east of the city. People are late for work – the manifestation breaks up time in the city. Some roads pedestrians can pass through; some roads are blocked arbitrarily. My friend insists on her right as a rent-paying Parisian to access her street, Rue René Boulanger. The gendarmes deny her request. We walk around and enter the square by another road. Police are interspersed across the square in outward-facing blocks of six, batons raised. Many people wear goggles, some have masks in preparation for the tear gas. Some have surgical masks that will offer little protection – one gets the impression they are tourists who have read blog tips on what to keep in your backpack for an authentic Parisian experience.
It is not immediately clear who are the Parisian bourgeoisie and who are in the movement. While obvious at the spectrum’s polar ends, there is a fugue of ambiguity in the middle, compounded by increasingly thick gas. Teenagers from the lycées take selfies with the action in the background. A group happen upon a man with a snake around his neck. He doesn’t even appear to be a street entertainer – he looks like he’s taking his snake for a walk, completely unfazed by tear gas grenades going off 20 feet away. The teenagers scream and take more selfies. Nobody is leaving the square, but the crowd fluctuates, like energy passing among atoms. In front of me, one of the blocks of six gendarmes take a direct hit from a molotov cocktail. One goes down, his body armour on fire. His colleagues rush him towards the nearest wall. Two try to stamp out the flames as best they can, the others turn to face the attack they know is coming. The movement see the gendarmes on the retreat, and they rush in to secure their advantage – it looks like this block are all going down. Two lines of gendarmes are deployed on the flanks in a desperate attempt to give cover for their isolated colleagues. The gendarme is still on fire. More rocks are thrown. Back-up arrives, and the movement dissolves, but three gendarmes end the day in hospital with burns. It’s hot today in Paris.
McDonald’s and KFC are mimicking airport-style bag searches upon entry. Obedient queues form outside the fast food outlets: it feels like a fragment of a future. The apparatus of the airport will be transplanted into the city – for the purposes of safety and security, it will become normal for bags to be searched upon entering shops. Not the expensive ones – just those used by the majority of the population.
The police had no qualms about firing tear gas grenades at its citizens today, whether or not they were viewed as opponents. This petite guerre with the movement has become a normal part of the city, as it has in cities across the world. At the train stations, the army walks around in packs of four with machine guns, arranged like little flocks of seagulls. This is a city that takes its authority from white-washed Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, with bus stops named after Diderot and street names like Boulevard Voltaire. Designer bags, coffee, baguettes, and the army now co-exist without anyone batting an eyelid. The nightmare from Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men has already happened.
There’s a reason the army guard the stations. Power is exercised through infrastructure, and the army need to keep the high-speed railways under their control. One of the most bizarre accuracies of the Hunger Games series was the montage in which the workers blow up their society’s infrastructure, such as the lumber plantation and the hydro-dam. The movement too recognises the importance of infrastructure, hence why the ZAD occupation of the future airport of Notre-Dame-des-Landes and the NO TAV struggle against a high-speed railway in the Susa Valley are the frontlines of resistance.
It appears that the State has dispensed with controlling the whole population, and is much more concerned with defending an ever-smaller fraction of the body politic. Think about a food shortage caused by climate catastrophe, like the maize shortage of 2010. How is the state going to react to this if it gets worse? Who will be deemed to deserve resources in times of scarcity?
A confused citizen hurries out of the way of a police van inching forward across the Place. Hunched and frightened, he scuttles unnecessarily, overly-deferent to the custodians of the modern world. Such forelock-tugging is no doubt an image of the future.