“I’ve been looking ’round for demos but haven’t found a thing.” A flash-back to the early hours of Paris 1. We’re sat outside the bar. Politics the topic. One of the first conversations with my new found French friends. “There’s one Monday, the day after the election.” The answer comes quick. Definite. I grin mischievously. “Cool what time?” “Two o’clock at Republique.”
And so innocuously it begins.
Paris seethes beneath the surface. This is no Revolution, no Commune, no May ’68, but the underlying feeling seems not far off. If Melenchon had made the run off, things would’ve been different – the left/right confrontation more immediate maybe but system-faith somehow restored. A route to change offered. Instead, there’s a second round vote between a NAZI and a Rothschild banker… the election from hell. Distress writes itself across the face of every Parisian under 30. Dark whispers of the days to come. The two combined had received a tiny minority of Paris’ vote. Leave the bourgey liberal areas and that number plummets all the more. Everywhere graffiti urges comrades to boycott the election. Even the veteran parliamentarian Melenchon is wavering.
Look number one comes May 7. Being the person I am, and holding a great deal of faith in the French capacity to rebel, I amble down to Republique at around 6PM on Sunday, the day of the election itself. After spending a half-hour searching the various newsstands in vain for the Guardian, I settle down with the weekend’s edition of the ever-imperialist International New York Times. It seems about a third of the paper’s dedicated to opinion pieces endorsing Macron. I smirk at their self-righteousness, their bewilderment at the widespread left boycott. A few dreadlocked punks, 80’s hardcore blaring from their bottom-price soundsystem, read the paper distrustfully over my shoulder. Noticing, I turn round and explain. “I can’t speak French and this is all they had in English.” They give me a long sideways look in that way continental squatters do when they’re not sure about someone. But they seem satisfied and carry on with their 9% cans of Amsterdam lager.
Nothing happens. I walk to Monoprix and grab some 80 eurocent tinnies. 8PM comes. Results time. Cars start honking relentlessly in the streets. ‘Macron,’ I think. Tamara had indicated as much based on the Belgian-run exit polls earlier (by a twist of law Belgians get to know who the president of France is before the French do). Sure enough I hear the name repeated repeatedly by randomers in the street. I grin and nod. He’s an asshole but at least he’s not a Fascist.
Just near the metro stop a short, olive-skinned girl begins chanting into a megaphone. Sadly my French doesn’t exist so exact translations won’t be coming. However the mood and cognates make it broadly intelligible. “The National Front is a Fascist front and we hate them.” Something to that effect.
A small crowd gathers, starts parading up the pavement. A confused half-hour later, unsure as I was of where we were even heading, we reach our obvious destination, Menilmontant. Large groups of punks, anarchists, and militants loiter round the square. Beer is guzzled. Excited speech forms a low, subway like rumble. There’s several hundred of us.
Suddenly the shouts go up and rise and rise. The marching begins. “Ah! Anti! Anti-capitalista!” The chant scorches the air, booming off the tall Parisian apartments either side. Masks are being thrown over faces. For a second the most unbelivable feelings rush through me. Power! Energy! Passion! The mad, roaring feeling of the rebel. My nerves stand on end. Everything seems possible.
But everything is not possible. There’s hundreds of protesters, thousands of cops. There’s no violence, no law-breaking yet immediately the police rush, batons drawn. The crowd runs down alleyway after alleyway as they give chase. People pull out bins and fencing, forming barricades not of revolt but of desperation. The police hunt like a pack of rabid dogs. This lasts for hours. The protest runs, trying to escape. I’m there as a spectator. Hanging to the sidelines, to the back. Far from the frontline. I slip away. This is not my fight. Dozens of others, however, are corned in a lefty bar. There the police tear gas, beat, and arrest them, leaving blood and tears in their wake.
Then, Monday. The crowds are much longer, the assembling in Republique. This time it is not merely the Anarchists out protesting this fake travesty of an ‘election.’ Trade Unions join, students, communist, even a sprinkling of left liberals. 10,000 in total I’d reckon. The march has a license even. Surely this time it will at least be able to complete the route?
The crowd gets about 100 metres in before the police form a line across the entire boulevard maybe five deep. They shove at people with their shields. Taunt. Shouts go back and forth. The march pulls back. Wait for the police to move. They back up maybe 20 metres. The crowd advances 20 metres. It continues on and on, the taunting back and forth growing more angry, more frustrated.
Then the snapping point comes. The police start to flank on the left side. The crowd boos and hisses. Then, unprovoked, the police charge. The harsh, flat sound of batons on flesh. The screams and panicked runs. Even the black bloc, used to confrontation, looks stunned at this blatant attack. An attack without reasoning. An attack just to attack. Tensions hit their height.
Just then, in response, a member of the crowd, I have no idea who, hurls something, a plastic bottle it looks like. I watch it sail through the air from my spot on the pavement outside the group. It falls to the ground and lays there for a minute. All eyes move towards it. Police back-peddle away. Then the explosion! The noise rings in everyone’s ears. No one is hurt but the crowd runs back, terrified of what the police will do in response. They seem to be closing in from all sides. I take this as my queue. I slip away a second time.
I spend the next half hour on a grand staircase at the plaza Bastille watching the too-and-fro between police and protester down the road, musing about the state of the world, the brutality of the police, the obvious farce of this French election.
One days this shit’ll end but for the moment we’re just sat around waiting.