Bottles and bricks fly through the air from one side of the boulevard and smash into a policeman’s riot shield. Here and there the crowd keeps its distance from the heat of small bonfires that have been made out of bins and rubble. The wind changes and blows a thin white vapour of tear gas onto you, making your face sting. I’m told by others in the crowd that today’s riot is something of a mild one.
The current protests began in January when Macron’s government proposed to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The move was opposed by both the far-Left NUPES party, led by Mélenchon, and Le Pen’s Rightist Rassemblement National. In spite of the opposition, the government used the infamous Article 49.3 of its constitution to push the reforms through without a parliamentary vote. This caused a no confidence vote in the National Assembly, which Macron’s government survived by only 9 ballots.
Outside the halls of power, France’s many unions took action to the street in a rare show of unity. Throughout the spring, France has been repeatedly gridlocked by strikes. The sight of clashes with riot police suggested that this issue was touching off something else. This wasn’t one more crappy government policy, one more thing where you’d voice your opposition with a bit of chanting before heading home again, but instead it looked as though the French people had really had enough.
Hearing another protest had been planned for April 6th I headed for Paris, to see it for myself.
Landing into the Esplanade des Invalides, a great stretch of green park in front of one of Paris’ biggest baroque buildings, nothing seemed too different from the usual protest as I knew them. The atmosphere felt like some kind of music or food festival. Stalls up and down the gathering protest march were selling sausages and fried onions, while pop music blared from speakers.
I followed the march along its planned route, swinging in a semicircle around the southern part of Paris’ city centre to Place d’Italie. The crowd was a mix of boomers, the archetypes we’d know from Yellow Vest protests, and skinny leftist kids — and not much in between. Flags flew from dozens of different leftist groups, yet I only saw one or two French ones.
For the first while, it seemed like the usual demonstration to me. There was a more tangible feeling of anger and action in the air, but that was about it. This changed suddenly when the head of the march came to Montparnasse.
Anarchist kids dressed in their Black Bloc gear of dark hoodies and facemasks had been floating about the crowd already, doing some graffiti here and there. But outside the Café Rotonde — which I learned later was targeted because it was apparently Macron’s favourite — on the corner of the Montparnasse and Raspail boulevards, they had gathered to hurl projectiles at a group of riot police posted in front of the café.
Bus stops had been smashed up, and fires had been set.
Most of the crowd stood by and cheered on the action, chanting “tout le monde déteste la police!” (“Everyone hates the police”), while having a gawp and letting the scrawny black bloc kids do the work. The police would charge and everyone would panic and run, then police would stop and move back as the rioters started throwing fireworks and flares at them. Finally too much of the march caught up and filled into the street and the police backed off.
These patterns repeated themselves throughout the day. Riot police would block roads and try to get the march more spread out, riling up the crowd. Anarchists would smash windows, set bins on fire, and at some points would try and smash up whole bank branches, kicking off a half-hour’s scuffle with the riot police who’d charge in. Meanwhile most of the demonstrators cheered in approval and stood by watching the action.
I was struck by the sight of protestors entering a bank through broken plexiglass windows, before running out and throwing pilfered documents into the air.
Speaking of demonstrators, there was relatively little mention of pensions themselves. Instead it felt that the demonstrations and riots were about the piled-up anger against the French State itself. Across town on the same day, other protestors broke into the offices of the Blackrock investment firm and lit up its atrium with red flares.
At one point after sprinting away from a baton charge, I watched a group of body-armoured officers form a protective wall around an empty bank. To me it seemed unnecessary. “Police Nationale! Milice Capitale!” came the chants before the police began firing tear gas canisters into the mob.
The pension reforms are set to be reviewed by a constitutional committee before they come into effect. According to some involved in the movement, the reforms will likely be approved on April 14th, and they expect the next big protests to be sparked by this event, although some seem pessimistic and think the energy will taper off afterwards.
However, what is clear is that the protests have become about more than just pensions and have transformed easily into a manifestation of the general discontent with the government’s leadership, its neoliberalism, and its closeness to big business. While the protests may fade in the long run, the frustration, the disillusionment and the anger of the French will remain.