A Mother and Citizen Facing the Social and Climate Emergency: the French State Mobilised against the Right to Demonstrate

‘If they stop thinking, every human being can act as a barbarian.’ Hannah Arendt

(Originally published in French at https://blogs.mediapart.fr/refondation-ecole/blog/270919/l-etat-francais-en-marche-contre-le-droit-de-manifester, this English translation appears by permission of the text’s anonymous author).

There were tens of thousands of us in the street to denounce the state’s climate inaction, this Saturday 21 September 2019… In Paris, on Boulevard St Michel, the atmosphere is joyful, colourful, really creative. An intense breath of life, a communion faced with our anguish for the future of the planet and for the social climate that we will bequeath to our children. These fine young people, so much more aware than us, are not standing on the sidelines. My (pre-teen) daughters, wanting to act, have prepared their placards and outfits with care and are marching, crowned with ivy. In spite of this beautiful collective energy, one of them sighs, ‘you adults, you could grow up carefree but us, our future is rotten.’ I try to respond to this worry. ‘Look, there are so many of us, we will fight, we adults too will do everything to change the course of things and to support you in your struggles…Everywhere in the world, millions of people are marching like us today’. I rely on the so inspirational image of Greta Thunberg. I look for the right words. All day, the words of Hannah Arendt – who I read all summer – will resound in me, though it is so difficult: ‘Finding the right words at the right moment is action’.

On this sunny Saturday, many emotions are running through us. A number of Gilets jaunes and Antifa activists are marching with us. Three men, perhaps a little drunk, get undressed in a good-natured way, provoking general hilarity. My daughters shout loudly! A joyful fanfare treats our ears. and behind us, ATTAC’s giant puppets point up to the sky.

But very quickly we feel the first signs of tension. One muffled explosion then another, then a cloud of smoke starts to form several hundred metres in front of us, at the head of the march. My first movement is to go backwards while we see two columns of young adults – men and women – passing, dressed all in black, headscarves over their mouths, advancing determinedly, booed by some demonstrators. The tension is palpable. ‘Mum what’s happening? My eyes are stinging, I want to leave!’ We start to retrace our steps while speeding up but several people advise us not to run, to keep calm. I remember that panic can worsen the discomfort provoked by tear gas.

We finally manage to take a side street to get to Place Edmond Rostand, There we are in front of the railings of the Jardin du Luxembourg. My daughters, like most of the children that we pass, are crying and shouting despite my attempts to stay calm and to try to reassure them. A very great solidarity is expressed between the demonstrators who are all pushed back towards the square by police vans and the massive use of tear gas (witnesses speak of sting-ball grenades). I’m also scared, because I’m starting to understand that it will be complicated to get out of there. I approach the line of CRS stationed in front of the entry to the park and beg them to let us pass. At the time I feel like I am addressing an iron curtain. Complete refusal. An officer advances towards us, I repeat my request. He allows himself, through a disdainful phrase, accompanied by a scornful look, to express a personal opinion against me: according to him, I should not have come to demonstrate with my children. I will have to manage now, stuck on this square in this cloud which is potentially toxic for the most vulnerable. Next to us, a woman pushes against the railings and also begs them, she is asthmatic, she is having an attack. They don’t bring her help.

Now that they have successfully calmed down, one of my daughters exclaims, ‘Mum I heard someone say that a demonstrator was hit on the head by a truncheon! Poor thing! But I thought the police were there to protect us? And so does that mean that Dad could also get hit?’ What should I reply, panicked, urgently needing to find a way out, how to reassure them about their father, who is demonstrating at the same time elsewhere?’

We carry on going past the railings. We reach a street blocked by a row of CRS. I beg them all over again. Refusal refusal refusal. When finally one of them discreetly signals to me and lets us past this dehumanised human barrier. We take the street and there, we see around ten people coming towards us: ‘there’s another CRS barrier at the end, we’re kettled!’ Seized together in a kettle, this technique for containing demonstrators used more and more by the police, some people give us saline solution and paper masks, certainly out of solidarity, but only worsening my children’s anguish. ‘Mum what’s happening! I’m scared!’

And then in the middle of this nightmare, a bearded young man surges forth from nowhere on rollerskates. He can thus move quickly to find a possible exit from this trap, he finds one and comes back to accompany us. A gentle-looking young woman takes over to escort us. We walk and talk – she is strongly involved in the Gilets jaunes movement and has developed a fine knowledge of the systems used by police. She knows to keep calm. But above all, she deploys totally naturally and with modesty towards us a generosity without doubt offered before us to numerous other persons in distress on demonstrations. Moreover she is a lawyer. She leads us up to a street where at last, we will be able to escape from this mousetrap. To the two of us, who will perhaps read these lines, an immense thankyou. You will remain in my memory, the figure incarnate of the Fairy Godmother.

Article 1 of the first item of the police code of conduct defines thus the essential mission of every police officer: ‘The police work together nationwide to guarantee liberties and to defend the institutions of the Republic, to maintain peace and public order and protect persons and goods’.

Faced with these rows of CRS who repeatedly, on the pretext that they were ‘only carrying out orders’, knowingly refused to protect us, us who were like many others, in danger, the words of Hannah Arendt still resounded in my head: ‘Evil comes from a failure to think’. Don’t you know that you and your children are also concerned? Don’t you see how the State is deploying all its means with a view to cutting down all dissent and the very exercise of the right to demonstrate? How can the official version, to justify police repression, legitimise the ambush into which the police knowingly kept demonstrators including thousands of children?

The two young people who helped us, dressed all in black, were clearly seasoned activists. Wearing dark clothing, like the individuals booed by the demonstrators. And if, and if… And if some of them also represented the benevolent figure of the fairy godmother when the police are clearly breaking their code of conduct? And if they brought us the hope of carrying on protesting in spite of everything, when we really need to find strategies to claim this inalienable democratic right, when the police are looking for ways to gag us? Anyhow, from this moment, I am more determined than ever to contribute to collective mobilisations faced with the social and climate emergency.

One question remains: what to transmit to my daughters today who say, obviously, that they will no longer go to demonstrate. Yes I truly regret that they had to go through that, but there were many of us who thought that the climate marches, made up in part of young people, would remain safe spaces, protected from violence. Speak, we will need to speak a lot. And write. Have they learned how complex our world is? No doubt they will invent within their generation other means of expression which will belong to them. I will support them with all my heart.

 

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