Do you speak English? a desperate, youngish man asked the bulky police officer looming over me, “We are just tourists.” He and his partner were lost, as they probably should have been since touring in a France that is meant to be in lockdown seems a ridiculous thing to do, but then everything at that moment was completely ridiculous.
Here we were in a street that circles l’Etoile, the vast roundabout in Paris that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. It was Saturday evening, the sun was beginning to turn the monument a slight pink behind the officer, and the demonstration against President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to stop photographs of police violence was coming to an end.
The officer appeared to be the boss of a mobile motorcycle patrol of some twenty bikes, with a passenger officer on each vehicle, that had a few moments before roared passed me up the Avenue Foche toward l’Etoile looking for some possible act they could do in support of “l’ordre publique”. This BRAV-M is the brainchild of Didier Lallement, the sour-toned Prefect of Police for greater Paris whose role in Macron’s drive to “defend Republican values” has been to make life more painful for those wishing to protest against the President’s favourite policies.
The idea is that they can nip to any outbreak of trouble and stifle it at birth. The problem is that they usually make the situation worse as by “trouble” is meant the presence of people who, for reasons of the natural plurality of ideas in a democratic society, just happen to have another view on life than the guy in the Elysée.
This time, they found themselves deployed against a group of rather confused, mostly evidently extremely mature people who had just left a demonstration called in the name of virtually every media worker organisation one can think of, along with a brace of civil liberties movements, left wing political parties and youth movements. We had been there to support the idea that the public have a right to see what police officers are up to.
Human Rights Square
Getting into the rally was not straightforward.
On any tourist trip to Paris one is usually taken to the place du Trocadero, a wide roundabout with some grass in the middle that, on its south side, has a decorative sweep of classical-style museums built in the 1930s. These are split in two by a wide, square sort of platform where you can stand taking selfies with the Eiffel Tower in the background on the far side of the Seine. Since 1985 it has been officially called Le parvis de droits de l’homme, Human Rights Square.
After filtering through the police cordon into the place du Trocadero, which took a quarter of an hour in a queue, I thought to see whether a powerfully-worded banner held up on the parvis might make a good photo, with the tower in the background of course. No such luck. It was sealed off by a high, impenetrable, police barrier. The best one could do was to try a shot through a steel mesh of some riot police from the Compaignies Républicaines de Sécurités profiled before Paris’ Iron Lady.
They were standing where Adolf Hitler famously had himself filmed in June 1940. But, underneath the stone slabs on which the Nazi leader strutted, are the halls where the fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly was held, a session that on 10 December 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A plaque now tells us, in the words of the French Revolution’s original Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, not the UN one, that “men are born free and equal in rights”.
One cannot say it feels as if that is the case when closed in by police barriers behind which lie in wait armoured water cannon, and scores of riot police with rifles, grenade launchers, shields and truncheons. All but two ways out were completely shut off, and those two happened to be in the opposite direction to the most obvious metro station to go to.
Which was why the tourist and I had ended up talking to the police officer from a unit of the BRAV-M. It stands for Brigades de répression de l’action violente motorisées by the way. He had cameras, radios, plastic truncheon (a vicious thing if you ever catch a blow from one), service pistol, taser, anything in fact you might think useful when accosting stray demonstrators, even if none of them are carrying anything more dangerous than the occasional hand bag, all, at that particular instant, much smaller than any in the possession of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.
Looking at this preposterously over-dressed officer I could not help repeating in my head one of the good Lady’s lines: “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it has handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.” One of the most dangerous excesses being the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the principles of which we were there to uphold against Macron’s desire to stop people have a sneak view of evidence of police violence.
There were two things missing, as it happened. For a start, he did not have a clue as to what to do with us. We had been an accidental collection. The squad had rounded a corner from l’Etoile and found themselves at a red traffic light. We just happened to be there. I had been walking, completely lost, in one direction, the others were making their way more logically from the rally in the opposite sense.
When it went green, there was a roar of motors that would have pleased a Texan Harley club, they swung round to our side of the road and ringed us in. We could hear his conversations over the radio with his controller. His colleagues gave us different explanations as to why they had surrounded us while cars, bikes and what not, even other pedestrians, remained on the move all around. One suggested they were going to accompany us to the nearest metro station “to make sure you do not try to resume the demonstration somewhere else”.
The whole thing was superficially very decent, almost apologetic on both sides. As it should have been, for there is no reason why political protest should become violent, so long as those in authority let it be. It was, however, patently obvious with whom power resided – with the forces de l’ordre and not with the citizenry.
“It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” That’s a phrase from the preamble to the Universal Declaration. It was there for the 70th anniversary of the signing on giant display panels in the forecourt of the Gare de Lyon just beside our flat. Those panels were gone by the time we could hear the crump of tear gas grenade and flashball launchers as the gilets jaunes protests took off. There are now some misty mountain scenes and oddball portraits on show for a quick glance by those trundling their suitcases to catch a TGV to the south.
The “rule of law” is not the same thing as the rule of menace. How many of us in France have not seen the image that Priscillia Ludosky tweeted out on November 17? It was the first day of the global security law debate in the French parliament, but also the second anniversary for the gilets jaunes movement. Her petition in the summer of 2018 was a key mobiliser for the movement that shook Macron’s regime to its core. Backed by the Human Rights League, she has an important court case on the go against Didier Lallement over his violent kettling of a gilets jaunes rally in Paris – a kettling that he agreed in real time with the then Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and Macron himself.
This is the sense of menace, threat danger and violence that Lallement, Castaner and Macron worked hard at shrouding around any democratic political protest they took an exception to. Gérald Darmanin was put in Castaner’s place to deliver the coup de grâce. Macron assured us early on in his rule that police violence does not exist and that we should not talk about it. But it is hard not to cry out when you or your neighbour are hit by a police baton. Hence Darmanin’s drive to intimidate people to stop spreading videos of the violence.
Like a rave from the grave, Castaner, now the leader of Macron’s group of deputies in the Assembly, reappeared the day before our rally to engineer what he said was a compromise. The law now says you can’t distribute the film, but that freedom of the media is upheld. Like everything with the Macronie, the rhetoric is “en meme temps”, at the same time. There is the reality of police encouraged to intimidate those filming their violence. There is also freedom to report. Problem solved.
There is the reality of police encouraged to intimidate those filming their violence. There is also freedom to report. Problem solved.
So there we were, many thousands, permitted to demonstrate, though only if cabined, cribbed and confined like dangerous wild animals, from whom everyone else has to be protected.
But this was a political rally in France. So there was popular inventiveness and variety by the bucketful. Slogans had been painted, written, even scratched or embroidered on odd bits of cardboard or cloth with every imaginable pun on any word around the police, their violence and the right to film. There were speeches from every left movement, party and professional organisation.
It was generally impossible to hear the detail of what was said. Edwy Plenel, one of the founders of the Mediapart online news title that hosts dozens of videos of police violence, clearly said something useful as there were generous rounds of applause. So did parliamentarians from the Communists, France Insoumise and the Greens who had all mounted a failed challenge in the Assembly to the new law. Liberty was the constant cry.
And there, amid the din of cheers, applause, a band or two, the occasional police camera drone in the sky above and the chatter of the thousands of overwhelmingly young protesters – what happy hopes for the future that sense of youth gave one – there were two young women standing on a bench singing songs of revolt and resistance a cappella for anyone who cared to listen. The poster at their feet declared: “A lid won’t stop a cauldron boiling over”.
Focus, vision, hope
The difficulty is that popular anger not only needs democratic channels through which it can be expressed but also some kind of organised focus amid the anger that can give a vision of hope and possible success to a growing number of citizens and electors. That is a long way off at the moment in France.
The main green party in France, EELV, used the weekend to debate what to do about a possible green candidate in the coming presidential elections. It ended up deciding to run a primary for those who back green politics in September next year. The individual who is head and shoulders above the others as a left tribune for the French people, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise, has staked his claim by already running an online campaign for 150,000 signatures nominating him as candidate that has gone way beyond that number. Don’t be surprised if we have a candidate, say the Communists. Leading Socialist and mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo says she is ready to play her part and that she could not back Mélenchon . . .
What Hidalgo did add was that, as things are at the moment, France could well end up with a “democratic crash” in that election. That is to say Macron back in with a second round of voting giving him a majority because enough electors who do not want him are so afraid of the extreme right Marine Le Pen that they will bite on their ballot and give him the keys to the Elysée for another five years. It will not be as easy for Macron in 2022 as it was in 2017. People have learnt lessons and anger is deep.
At a press conference in the rooms of the Human Rights League before the rally, Taha Bouhafs of Reporters en colère, Reporters in Anger, and who was one of those filming Macron’s minder Alexandre Benalla roughing up demonstrators on May Day 2018, told us that hate on the internet “does not go in the direction” claimed by ministers who have used the excuse of harassment on the net of police officers to justify the new law.
Doria Chouviat, whose husband Cedric died in January after being kneeled on by police, something that was filmed by witnesses, was there wearing a T-shirt with the name of another victim of police malpractice, Ibrahima Bah. “If he had had the chance that a casual passerby had taken a video . . . We cannot remain like sheep and accept whatever the authorities say.” The street he died in was called rue Salvador-Allende.
The missing RIO
The second thing that was missing in the presence of the BRAV-M officer was his RIO, his personal service number. Before the tourist barged into the conversation, I was pointing out that the officer beside him had his RIO on the front of his flack jacket – though, true, it was largely hidden by a, perhaps, strategically placed flap. He smiled a cheeky, Macron-like grin, saying that, Yes, his jacket did not have any Velcro so he had to put it elsewhere.
He turned and showed his red armband declaring “Police” and there, hanging perilously on the edge, was the magic strip of day-glo silver with the row of seven tiny numbers supposed to enable members of the public to be able to pinpoint who he is. You would have to have the fastest of camera shutters in your brain for any chance of seeing, let alone memorising, that number had the arm, his right one, been deployed in fast truncheoning mode against you.
The thing is that this RIO, the référentiel des identités et de l’organisation, the identity and organisation reference, is the only thing that I would have the right to circulate publicly by way of an identifying mark under the new law on global security.
Why his jacket lacked Velcro while his colleague’s was well supplied, was a question left hanging in the air like tear gas drifting in a breeze after a rally has parted and gone.
And, by the way, I have not been able to come up with an explanation as to why a squad of riot police, equipped to give hell to any recalcitrant protestors who have not yet obeyed the President’s orders to go home, and who are sitting on motor bikes capable of 0 to 60 in fewer seconds than I have fingers on one hand, should have been brought to a stop by a red traffic light. If only all the democratic political struggles in France today were that easy to win.