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The International Writers Magazine
Life in France

The French Do it Weekly
Neil Smith
on strife in Paris streets

On March 30th 2006, nearly two thousand Parisian youth from all over the city met at the fountain in Chatelet Place, just across the Seine from the National Police Barracks. They then proceeded to block off highways and streets as they marched nearly one kilometer to the Gare de Lyon train station, shutting down regional and national train service for four hours.

At first the protest seemed planned, the origin and destination of the students a carefully orchestrated attempt by leaders to show their teeth to the government by affecting national travel and therefore threatening both the tourist and commuter income of the most visited city in the world. But, as the protest continued, it quickly became evident that Gare de Lyon was chosen at random as the students marched along the Seine. The destination seemed to have been decided via cell phone between leaders at the front and the back of the march. When one leader, easily identified by the bright yellow armband he wore, was asked where the students were going, he was heard saying, "We haven’t decided yet. No one knows yet. Just keep moving."

This quote was taken at the intersection by the Boulevard Diderot Bridge, maybe thirty yards from where the protest turned left towards Gare de Lyon. The police, caught unaware, were noticeably absent from the scene as the students used people from their own ranks to block off intersections and highways, and were even more absent at the train station when the first violence occurred. The police had maybe five minutes warning before students streamed into the station, broke through a small line of riot personnel at the top of an escalator access, and marched out onto the tracks.

The protest was haphazard, and in response to the government’s new CPE (First Employment Contract) laws which will repeal France’s long held social doctrines of employment. The main problem with the laws, according to the students, is that it denies job security to anyone below the age of twenty-six. The law will allow employers to fire young people without giving reason, a complete reversal of the current rules which guarantee a young employee their job for six months, providing they don’t use it to commit a crime. The law has been the subject of strikes and protests since February when Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pushed it through parliament.

Occupying the train station was both brilliant and foolish on the part of students. It was smart because after commandeering the train station they found themselves in a place not easily accessible by riot police and impossible to reach by the riot vehicles that had become a common sight on most Parisian streets over the last week. The terrain worked in favor of the students, providing them with dozens of loose railroad ties, which they quickly laid across twelve sets of tracks as a barrier to the trains and police, as well as an inexhaustible supply of rocks which could be thrown. Also, if the police wanted to block off the access to the station facility itself and box in the students they would have had to pour their ranks into train bays six feet deep and then take the students with force from a lowered position. In fact, the standard tactics of riot police in France, that is, locking shields and moving forward in a phalanx toward the heart of a crowd, was rendered impossible by the fact that the students had nowhere to go. If they went back through the station facility, the police risked sending hundreds of angry youth through a thousand waiting angry travelers and a dozen or so shops protected only by closed plexi-glass doors. If the students dispersed along the tracks, they would be sending them farther down the line and disrupting travel into the night. The students would also be going into neighborhoods populated by Parisian French-Algerians, a segment of the population that has gained a reputation over the last week for attacking protestors. It was perhaps the first time in a week of protests that the police were on their heels so to speak.

Going to the train station was a foolish move by the students for two reasons. First, by walking out onto the tracks they were breaking the law and all two thousand of them were now subject to legal arrest. Ten students were in fact arrested, most of whom were part of the leadership, which denied the student group some of its brain trust. Another problem was that the protest now found itself far from the city center and the eyes of tourists and locals in downtown Paris, the center of wealth and social organization in France. Every citizen who saw the protest that day was either an angry commuter who would not be home for dinner, a tourist who would now miss a flight, a shop keeper threatened with property damage in a riot, or a station employee who would also not be finished with their job at the end of the day.

Not only were the police obviously absent from the scene, but also the French media. As I followed the protest I noticed only one small hand-held video camera used by a man with a press badge on his arm. Other photographers followed the group along its protest route and into the station, but there were apparently no print or television reporters present during the occupation of the train station, and none present when the protest was dispersed.
"I think the media has put out a very biased image of this movement," said Veronique, a forty-year-old computer engineer standing on the train platform watching the protest. Veronique was the mother of two high school students, sixteen and seventeen years old, who were somewhere in the group of protestors who were, at the time of the interview, facing police forming into a wall of plastic shields and night sticks. "They don’t report what is going on, or what is really happening. This is about the CPE, but not only so. My grandfather fought in 1938 for this country to be socialist, and now on television you only see students running at police like they want only the anarchy. The news doesn’t report the level of violence towards the students, only the way they are disobeying the government. The police don’t care who you are, how big you are or what you’re doing there. When they come at you they just hurt whoever is in front of them. No one reports the injuries."

As the hours passed and the order was given to disperse, the students began shouting the slogans they had been yelling during the short march to the train station. The first was "Two steps forward! Three steps back!", a commentary on the logic of the French government when it came to making laws. Another was, "Villepin, tu devrais elre enferme et tous ceaux dans le gouvernement quite soutiennent gont une bande do PD!", which accurately translates into "Villepin, you should be locked up and everybody in the government who supports you are a bunch cocksuckers!" Another commonly used slogan was, "Vilepin, si seulement ta mere avait entendu parler de l’avortement!", translated into, "Vilepin, if only your mother had known about abortion!"
Finally, after four hours of waiting, the police moved in. Remarkably, almost confusingly, no violence occurred. After locking shields and pressing the front of the crowd the police moved back a few yards to let their first movement set in. This was followed by one shot of tear gas to the students which didn’t land in the center of the group but bounced off one of the rail ties at the edge of the core.
When the tear gas fogged the railways though, the students began to disperse almost as though they’d been waiting for this first action by the police to let them know it was okay to go home. One can of tear gas is not enough to disperse two thousand people, but the one can worked. In practically no time at all the crowd was gone, released through access gates to the rail yard and also back down through the station itself where still no violence occurred.

It was as though the students were looking for the first moments of a fight, the grandstanding, the insults, and when the first swings were thrown they thought their job done and went home to insult another day.
My search for the protesters and the soul of the problem here in Paris began at Charlemange High School a few hours before the trouble at the train station began. I was walking with my friend Kate along the Rue de Charlemagne near the Latin Quarter of Paris when we came upon a group of kids seemingly sitting idly outside of their school gates. Most of the kids milled about, talking, laughing. It looked much like any normal school yard before classes begin in the morning. Except this wasn’t morning, this was eleven o’clock. When Kate asked a few students lounging on a bench if they were protesting, she was given a smile and a nod.
"What are you protesting?" I asked a kid who’d bummed a cigarette earlier.
"The CPE, of course," he said.
The kid, who spoke nearly perfect English, didn’t seem to know. I was told to wait a moment while they "found someone who knew what was going on." While they looked, I asked a few more students about the CPE and what it meant, and in return got mumbled answers that it had something to do with getting a job or not getting a job. When I asked how long they’d been on strike from school they all gave a resounding "Oh! Seven weeks no school!"

Eventually I spoke with Stephan, an eighteen year old who apparently had been one of the organizers of the protest and was giving the interview while running back into a crowd of students near the gate who occasionally began screaming at each other and shouting, "Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!" which was not a battle cry to attack the school gates, but the normal language when two kids get into a scuffle.

When I asked what the fight was about he said that there were many kids who didn’t want the strike and who wanted to go to school. In May, just seven weeks from now, the students were expected to take college entry exams, and they wanted to take classes. I asked Stephan why he and his classmates were striking due to the CPE.
"The government doesn’t listen," he said, "because they don’t want to hear. They believe they have the right to do what ever they want, but this is a democracy so we are trying to show them that, to remind them that they should listen."

When I asked why he thought the Prime Minister and Parliament had forced the CPE, Stephan said, "They have done this so that they can say they’re doing something. That is the only reason. The government is lazy with all problems and now wants the young to pay for it. We can’t live the way they want us to live. If they have this law then you won’t have a job you can keep. You won’t have a life like we have now in France."

After leaving the 'schoolyard', I found a group of protestors nearby a metro stop and asked one girl what the sign said that she was holding. The sign had a picture of a wolf, feet down, snarling at the camera and said, "The CPE is a wolf to humanity," a take on the famous quote by Plautus written in Asinaria, "Homo homini lupus," or "Man is a wolf to man."

Her name was Marion, a second year English major at Charles V University who hadn’t been to class in over a month. "We hope that the Prime Minister will see what we’re doing and hear us. The law is connected to the government’s wanting to stop unemployment, but they needed something to give the employers a way to fire people from the suburbs after what happened there," she said, meaning the riots which scorched the suburbs of Paris just a few months ago. During those riots Algerian and youths from other Arab nationalities went on a tirade of car burnings and violence to protest the accidental deaths of two teenagers hiding in an electrical transformer while they believed they were being chased by the police. Marion was quickly joined by Marina, also twenty years old and an English major.
"Generally the population of Paris if for the left," she said, meaning the basic socialist doctrine that has held sway in the past years over right wing leaders who would propose almost facist laws to deal with the young and with the Arab "problem" in Paris, "but that doesn’t mean we should sign up with what ever the EU (European Union) wants to do. We are now (by protesting) flying in the face of an uncertain law. If the law is passed then it’ll be just like America. You’ll need three jobs just to live and you’ll be twenty-six before you can buy a house or a car and feel that your life isn’t precarious. I’m in college and I don’t want to work at McDonald’s to stay there."

I asked if she had run into trouble with the police.

"Oh yes," she said, "I’ve been gassed twice in the last week, both times for nothing. No one pushed them, no one threw anything but they shot us with the rubber bullets and shot gas anyway. They’re the violent ones. We’ve done the best we can to keep out les casseurs." Les casseurs, translated into English as "the breakers" are protesters who usually trail behind the throngs of marching students and vandalize property. Most of the vandalization occurs in the early hours of the morning during a protest when everyone is tired and not paying attention. In the last few days, as many as sixty breakers had been arrested, tried, and convicted of vandalism and were now spending two and a half months in prison.

The problem with this seemingly smart move on the part of the police was that to be categorized as a breaker you didn’t need to actually break any thing. You could be arrested simply for standing on the street holding a glass bottle, which had filled the courthouses with parents pleading that their children shouldn’t go to jail for drinking a beer on a public street.

After talking with the girls, I walked three blocks to Charlemagne where the protest would eventually start for Gare de Lyon. It was here that I saw the most interesting thing about the movement. The square teemed with kids, most of whom were dressed in normal clothing with a few tying scarves around their faces to keep their identities secret and to help with the tear gas they expected throughout the day. But unlike the other American protests I’ve participated in, no one in this group of students seemed angry about anything. Also, no one in the cars that were stopped, or the tour buses that were held up, or the cafes where you now couldn’t hear yourself think, seemed to be angry. Tour bus drivers, taking groups of people along the Seine, honked their horns loudly and the protestors cheered. People who had their cars stopped simply rolled down the window and politely asked some of the protestors (many of whom were slapping their palms on the car’s hood) where they might find a way around the turmoil and were then politely informed of the best route. The people in nearby cafes sat mouthing words to each other and smiling, nodding at the students who were disrupting their appertife.

During my week in Paris I would see this more and more, people quietly sitting in an outdoor bar or café enjoying their drink, ceasing their conversation momentarily as four or five buses of police in full riot gear sped past, only to blithely resume it after the sirens had dimmed. Once I was sitting by the ruins of a cathedral turned museum on Rue de’ Cluny when some protestors, fresh from the fray, walked quietly and respectfully around a group of people eating crepes by an outdoor vendor’s table. The protestors nodded hello, the tourists turned away in fear.

After blocking traffic and invading the station, the students left Kate and I behind where we interviewed two rail workers who wouldn’t give their names. They stood by the wall dressed in their blue coveralls sipping coffee and when I asked what they thought, I got an earful. It seemed that the rail workers, both Arab who’d emigrated to Frace from Tunisia in 1995, were living the very life that the students were trying to avoid. "When they hire and fire people like this, they’re exploiting the people. We are contract workers," one said, meaning that they were members of France’s migrant labor force, people who rarely have citizenship and keep jobs based on month-long contracts. If they had been Mexicans picking oranges in Florida or tobacco in North Carolina they would have been worried about deportation, their situation ambiguous due to the Bush administration’s current political screw-up. If they had been Americans teaching English in China they would have considered themselves ex-patriots. The immigrant train workers that day (about a dozen of them huddled to the side as the students took the platform) did not seem to want to get involved. This wasn’t surprising since the government has absolutely no legal penalty for not renewing their contracts at the end of the month and could conceivably render them all jobless without consequence. This was also why the man we spoke with did not nod visibly at us when he said, "Yes, I agree with them," but just sort of shook his head and smiled and then looked around to see if anyone was watching him speak with us. The man present that day along with the other migrant workers was also part of France’s answer to its reputation of strikes among municipal workers. This group is so prone to strike, that even the name "Cheminots", that is train workers who are citizens with pensions, paid holidays, early retirement, etc., is a colloquial synonym for "protest".

Just before we left (Kate said that she was in no way going to get gassed and if I dragged her farther into the fray she’d tell her mother who would kill me) I managed to interview Romain, a Literature and Art major at the Sorbone who bravely gave me his full name (which I won’t print), who gave me some insight while the riot police, now fully assembled, began to give their final warnings to the crowd. "This is about the CPE," he said, as the police first began to clear away the railroad ties between them and the crowd, "but it’s not just about the CPE. It’s about a lot of things. Its about the fact that they made this law without thinking and without asking the people it would directly affect because those people don’t have a vote. Its about the law that will allow them to take a child away from its parents if the government judges them unfit, but without telling anybody what ‘unfit’ means. They’ll deny aid to people who they think are ‘unfit’ and starve them. Before long, being ‘unfit’ might mean being a socialist. It’s also about Villepin, who no one elected. (President) Chirac appointed him and he’s going to screw us up."

After trying to leave, I got my one and only interview with a policeman who stood maybe six feet six inches and was decked out in full riot gear at the far end of the station platform, barring myself and a dozen others from leaving the scene. He was gracious enough to politely say he could make no comment. He’d say only that he wasn’t from Paris and had been called in from the countryside for the emergency and that he’d been at work for nearly fourteen hours straight, working earlier in the day at a demonstration near Porte d’Orleans.

There are some who say that the only reason the student protests in Paris haven’t turned the corner towards open violence is that the students lack organization and a clear political agenda. After all, three million people on strike, roughly five percent of the country’s entire population, would represent in any other western society a new and politically lethal group. A close analogy would be, say, in America if every first or second generation Asian-American suddenly decided not to go to work for a month. They say that the students are spoiled, disenfranchised by the simple prospect of losing a job if they don’t work hard. They say that the CPE is in every way connected to the massive unemployment in the Arab Parisian suburbs, and that employers have long waited for an opportunity to be able to hire Arabs but also fire them without legal ramifications. They say that its time for France to change, and that the only real way to make it happen is to stick it to a group of people who are young enough to struggle through it, smart enough to make the best of it, and who will ultimately grow out of their opposition to the government as they grow out of everything else in their youth. Also, they say, most of the people protesting are from the affluent parts of Parisian society who are only trying to protect jobs in coffee shops and record stores that they can keep and screw up and not have to worry about losing so that their drinking money will be protected.

Then there is the other side that says the students are the enlightened ones, not the tight-lipped politicians who enjoy a lavish lifestyle in a country professing to be socialist. They say it’s the students who are keeping the spirit of social awareness alive with their protests, that it’s the right of the people, any people, to stop their society cold if they think its making a wrong move. The idea is that by legally taking a sense of job security away from the future doctors and lawyers of France, the country is inviting a pseudo-American way of life, which will pave the way for all kinds of madness.

Say what you will about the unemployed and unhappy Arabs in Paris who burned cars, at least they’re not angry because a foreign army murdered their children in order to get at the oil beneath their feet because that army’s home country needed it to keep their century-old capitalist fever at a constantly high pitch. This side is sure, as am I, that what happened in Paris in March was quite possibly the last socialist revolution in the history of the western world, the death rattle of an old sense of normalcy and, yes, freedom. Very soon, they predict, Europe will embrace unity, but unity that will erase all sense of political and cultural self in favor of the cheapest prices, the lowest quality, and the subjegation of the third world.

The clothes for sale in downtown Paris are expensive, but the people who made them are union members. They have contracts and pensions and it costs society a great deal to support them in old age, but at least these workers come guilt free. Perhaps that’s the center of the debate here in Paris; if you open the doors to capitalism and put a price on everything, you’re eventually going to have to feel, not know, but feel what that price means. Perhaps it is not hard work that the students are afraid of, but the offence to their souls of knowing what rampant capitalism will bring even in a liberal democracy.

Here is the last journal entry from my trip:
"I sit now on the bank of the Seine in the shadow of Notre Dame, listening to a bagpiper beneath one bridge and the mellow puffs of a tenor saxophonist on another, I wondered what exactly has become of Paris. In the Paris of Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and Pound everyone was poor, hungry, free only in a place where you found joy in keeping your eyes open. In the literary Paris (which is the only Paris I ever knew before I came here) the people enjoyed life without protest, escaping into good wine, bicycle races, and macabre trysts among friends. It was a place where everything was taken seriously and not so seriously, where the hot ennui could make you nuts, but wasn’t a pathology that couldn’t be settled with good conversation and maybe a cold snub along a city street. I mean, here I am. I’ve had my espresso earlier and been ignored by the waiter, a French tradition. I’m eating a crepe that drips with cheese and chunks of fresh ham. I’ve just been to Shakespeare & Co. There are riverboats going by packed with tourists, the restaurant tables inside littered with half full wine glasses fondled by people with perfect hair and sunglasses. I wave and they pretend not to see me. There is a sense that the old city is now truly feeling old and unable to look after the grandchildren who are made good and true by their angry eyes staring at age and everything they don’t understand about life. But then again the older people have said the same thing, that the kids are genuine but the price of that truth is the suffering of millions. Its all confusing, but then again it’s all in French…

…am now at a coffee shop. The waiter is ignoring me. Shouldn’t have said hello in English. Next to me are two old men whose conversation has gone from the protestors to Brazilian hookers to the rising price of underwear and back to the protestors. The men are well dressed in sport coats and shirts buttoned to the neck, clean cut and shaven. One of them sits with his hands folded over the head of an engraved walking cane. He nods and raises his cup to his lips…

Maybe that’s it, if you’re not French then you’re not going to understand. There was the man yesterday, just a guy leaned back on a park bench who bummed a smoke and I asked him what he thought. He didn’t know he said. I asked how many protests they had in Paris, and he wondered what I meant. ‘How many, you know, large protests?’ He thought. He stared out at the park. The neck and head of the Eifle Tower peeked at us over some trees. ‘I would say that we see maybe one a week on television. Maybe every two weeks over the last few years, always kids or train workers or Arabs.’ The man smiled and nodded. He watched the children playing nearby in the grass. Nothing to do on a Thursday afternoon but watch the good life happening.

It seems that protest isn’t new to France, isn’t new to Paris and the kids aren’t about to give up. No wonder the waiters are so old. What happens next? Will it all turn capitalist? Will there be a Wal-Mart built into the Louvre? Big chain restaurants along the Seine? Will you be able to visit the salad bar while you notice the carvings on Notre Dame? Will crepes be lost in favor of the number four at Deny’s? Who knows. I hope not.

* Special thanks to Katherine Cavalierie *
© Neil Smith (submitted Feb 2007)>

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