Florence Reynolds: Changeons le systeme?

This piece appeared in the New Zealand Herald, 03.12.2015

State moved on suspected planners days before march; police and tear gas dispersed the rest.

I write this from my inner city Parisian hostel, nose still stinging from tear gas, sirens drowning out the background traffic noise.

This morning, I set out to observe and document the civil society demonstrations that were planned to take place despite the French Government's ban on protests of "two or more people with a political message".

A human chain of nearly 10,000 stretched out along a street, one that would have been entirely filled by the People's Climate March had it not been banned by the French Government.

Those linking arms were adamant they would hold a peaceful demonstration with a strong message, yet respectful enough of the state to compromise, by avoiding blocking traffic and allowing pedestrian access. Interestingly, the human chain demonstration was not officially denounced by the police; nor did they endorse it - the stance of law enforcement was that it could continue so long as nothing untoward happened.

The organisers made efforts to keep control and order; volunteer organisers briefed those arriving, asking that we keep walking or join the chain rather than congregating. In the first hours, there was a strong police presence. The demonstration remained peaceful and organised. Towards the end the police had almost totally dispersed.

Walking along the street, I was amazed by the diversity of those who had turned up. Babies and buggies, bikers, Native Americans, professionally dressed individuals and some hippies. This was a colourful and creative demonstration. Almost everyone was adorned with signs and stickers, there was live music and small flash mobs.

The face of this climate demonstration was not that of one person or any specific group; it was a show of hope and diversity. Just as uniform holds together a police squadron, standing side by side these protesters were linked by more than their arms. They were united in hope for a peaceful, safe climate future.

The nature of the linked human chain symbolised the unity felt within those present, the interdependence between humans and the environment, and the common responsibility of all to address climate change. The message was clear, "Changeons le systeme pas le climat" - change the system, not the climate.

 "State of Emergency for the Climate?"

"State of Emergency for the Climate?"

 "Save the Climate, Eat a Banker"

"Save the Climate, Eat a Banker"

Thirty minutes walk away, I arrived at La Republique. This square is packed with symbolic meaning, and an ironically appropriate place for the events that would come.

At the centre stands a monument representing the French Republic, signifying the motto of France "liberte, egalite, fraternite" and featuring a tablet inscribed with the 1793 rights of man and the citizen. Encircling the central monument lay flowers, candles, and messages of hope, unity and peace: a truly heartfelt display of "fraternite" in the wake of the Friday 13 events.

"Liberte, liberte, liberte," went the chant as I arrived at La Republique after finding my way across police blockades that stood strong at every entry point. From the top of a lamp post I watched the demonstration and the police actions unfold. The number of police was sobering: double parked police vans lined each street around the square. Hundreds of police formed lines on outer edges.

One main group of several hundred protesters peacefully chanted in a corner. In the centre of the place, many people were watching the protesters and police - unintimidated by the initially peaceful nature of both groups. A moment of panic followed three loud bangs like gun-shots; relief followed - it was only a poorly secured sign falling off a construction site.

From my lamp post lookout I witnessed a rain of tear gas canisters, thrown indiscriminately towards the public, protesters, and passersby. Throughout La Republique, signs and messages were diverse - anti-capitalist, Alternative Libertaire, climate, anti-police state. Police then moved in. The protest group was now enclosed on two sides; they responded by moving down one side of the square.

Another crowd of protesters with drums, dominated by Alternative Libertaire, anarchist and anti-police state signs entered, having somehow made it through the lines of police vans. More riot-ready officers moved in with chilling efficiency.

La Republique remained peaceful, a peace poised on a thick edge of tension. This was essentially a waiting game. Hundreds of well-drilled, organised and well-equipped police facing hundreds of protesters, not organised under a common purpose nor representing a common organisation. "Egalite" (equality) was lacking here. Unfortunately, it seemed inevitable that one side would make a play, lose a pawn, and the game would change.

A bloom of white smoke on one side of the square marked the end of the stalemate. Protesters and observers alike moved down into the metro away from the tear gas. A few minutes later, from my lamp post lookout I witnessed a rain of tear gas canisters, thrown indiscriminately - towards the public, protesters, and passersby.

The memorials to those killed on November 13 were clouded from view. It was time to move; I followed the crowds running into the metro, away from police. Blindly descending stairs away from the masses, I boarded a train in an unknown direction.

From published accounts it seems over 100 people were detained. Other details are less clear. Alternative Libertaire claimed "some grenades shot hit the demonstrators. The police threw tear gas into the tube before closing it, to establish a real trap". The police claim that they had been provoked by bottles being thrown. The protesters and witnesses I spoke to claim that the bottles were a response to pepper spray and tear gas.

I always find the differences in truths that people hold to be fascinating - be it at a football match, a political debate or a protest, we have a tendency to see things in a light that reinforces our perspective. These reports are so divergent that they are impossible to reconcile. From what I saw, both behaved in a provocative manner. Whatever the facts, these events do not reflect well on either protesters or the French State. However, this really was only the inevitable conclusion of a long string of events.

The French Government could have chosen to allow and accompany the protest rather than repress it, and used less police resources to do so - thus taking away any justification for anger and violence.

In the days before, 24 had been house arrested for being implicated in planning. Prior to that, 58 notices and arrests were served following a demonstration in support of refugees. By issuing bans and through heavy-handed suppression the French Government as good as guaranteed that there would be a protest, that it would attract primarily more extreme groups, and therefore that it would end badly.

This was not about climate; it was a manifestation of an ongoing power struggle that in New Zealand and Australia hardly ever bubbles to the surface.

A struggle between a system that benefits from faceless individuals, and individuals who want to show their own face. Changeons le systeme?

 First lot of tear gas

First lot of tear gas

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.