While we were jammed and crammed into the Place de la République, a vast rectangle around a high statue of a female vision of “the French Republic” able to host 20,000 or more, France’s highest court brought President’s Macron’s drive to block political demonstrations to about as total a halt as I found myself in when confronted by a set of huge police barricades stopping me and that 20,000 from leaving the square.
Called by the campaign in support of justice for Adama Traoré, one, just one, of France’s equivalents of George Floyd, the rally on the afternoon of Saturday 13 June was intended to proceed from La République to the Opéra. Prefect of Police Didier Lallement went so far as to order all premises on the route to close up, board up and not leave so much as a single item that someone might use as a missile lying around.
But then, on that Saturday afternoon, sometime around 3pm, two things happened. First, the court, the Conseil d’Etat, announced that it was removing the ban on demonstrations in public places that had been reinforced by a government decree issued on the last day of May. And then Didier Lallement changed his mind. The barriers were kept in place and we were kettled in La République.
Like so much about French policing, it was hard to see how the two decisions could be reconciled.
The court had been asked by the Human Rights League and several trade unions to rule on the validity of the government’s ban. Ministers had said it was necessary in order to fight the epidemic. The court pointed out that the government had accepted the opinion of the High Council on Public Health back on 24 April that circulation in public spaces did not need to be restricted so long as “barrier measures” were followed. That would include wearing a mask and keeping a metre away from each other.
Its judgement said “Liberty of expression and communication . . . is a fundamental liberty . . . the exercise of which, notably the freedom to demonstrate or assemble is a condition for democracy and one of the guarantees of the respect for other rights and liberties . . . It must nevertheless be reconciled with respect for the purpose of the constitutional value of protecting health and with the maintenance of public order.” The government decree had not been “necessary, relevant or proportionate”.
But a sting in the tail of the judgement was a stress laid on the continuing power of a prefect to ban a demonstration if they felt it was likely to lead to public disorder or if it might be larger than 5,000 people. As, up to this point, the police have always grossly under-estimated the size of any protest rally, it might not seem too much of a problem. But it would still have given Prefect Lallement the power to have all of us in La République fined 135€ (the going rate in France for disrespecting anti-epidemic rules) not to mention similarly large rallies in Marseilles, Lyons and Rouen.
As it was, nearly everyone around me had a mask, but no chance of keeping their distance. Instead, if those barriers had opened we could have formed a parade like those in Northern Ireland of the past: three lines down the road, one on either side, one in the middle, each person keeping their distance from the person before. That was a tradition followed not only by the reactionaries of the Orange Order, but by Republicans too.
Doing that, though, we would have made just the impression Lallement and his ilk did not want the French public to experience. And the idea that a core purpose of a police service is to help members of the public enjoy and use their democratic rights, to help them do so in ways that protect the health and safety of others? That’s a thought that finds it hard to rattle around in Lallement’s brain.
Instead, a government that claims to put fighting Covid-19 before all else, created the very opposite of such a parade and formed us into a pressure cooker for the epidemic, enlivened by occasional forays into the crowd on the part of disorganised squads of riot police accompanied by clouds of teargas.
Learning from history
A tiny racist faction, Génération Identitaire, staged a provocation by hanging a giant banner suggesting that the real problem was “anti-white racism” from the rooftop of flats overlooking the square. The overwhelmingly young crowd, young women, young men in equal number, overwhelming Black, stayed angry but controlled as people in the flat below set about ripping it apart.
As we dispersed, some of us down a wide boulevard toward Place de la Bastille, a young activist in front of me with a loud hailer was reminding us all of why we were there. Bit by bit it became obvious that a dozen and more police minibuses were coming towards us.
We stopped, they stopped, but not his insistent messaging. The police got out and lined up across the road and pavements. They got back in their vans. Then out again. Whacking their truncheons against their shields, they moved slowly forward, tossing some gas grenades along the ground in our direction. How he kept shouting through that loud hailer in a dense cloud of teargas, I do not know.
But the gas attracted the media. Cameras appeared, film started to be recorded. Smart phones came out. And then the first sensible thing I had seen a police officer do that day: the commander, who had been strutting in front of his crew rather like a medieval king, signalled to the guy with the loud hailer and invited him forward for a parley. Look, it’s the end of the day, he said, we’ll go now, if you lot agree to stick to the pavement. A deal? OK. I bumped elbows with the loudhailer artist as it was a moment to be celebrated.
Following that pavement, the world changed subtly. Gone were the young Black and North African demonstrators who had come in from “the difficult neighbourhoods”, assembling en masse in defiance of discriminatory policing. Instead, the bistros and bars, which have taken over most of the space with their outdoors tables and chairs, were patronised by those like me, white and with enough money in the pocket for a glass or two of wine with a platter of cheese and ham.
In my pocket was the remains of a gas grenade, one of several hundred used during the afternoon. They are made of plastic these days. Not like the heavy metal and thick rubber one I have kept from Derry’s Bogside in the weeks that led up to Bloody Sunday in 1972. Doubtless, Lallement will try to use the Conseil d’Etat’s somewhat double-handed judgement in his favour. Fifty years on from that terrible event, is it too much to hope that someone in power in France will realise that it is not a sin to learn from history?