FOR SEVERAL MONTHS I’ve been following and recording the street demonstrations in Paris in response to the new French labour law, the law El Khomri.
Demonstrations protesting against the new legislation have been taking place on the streets of Paris and across France since March this year and I’ve reported three of them on this blog; one in April, one on 1st May and one towards the end of May, the latter of which found me shrouded in a cloud of tear gas.
The government and many employers argue that the new labour law makes working practices more flexible thus helping to address the high level of unemployment but some unions, particularly the CGT, the country’s largest trade union, see it as toxic; too pro-business and making workers’ positions more precarious.
Since the government forced the legislation through the Assemblée Nationale in May using emergency constitutional powers to avoid a vote that it would almost certainly have lost, the street demonstrations have become increasingly violent.
To coincide with a debate about the new labour law in the French Senate, protestors took to the streets again last Tuesday.
Organised by the CGT union, who reportedly laid on some 600 buses to ship people in from around France to swell the numbers, Tuesday’s demonstration was one of the largest and certainly the most menacing I’ve seen in my seventeen years of observing street protests in the city.
Sounds of Tuesday’s Manifestation:
At the head of the demonstration were the casseurs, the hooded and masked youths intent on creating havoc – and that’s exactly what they did.
I followed the demonstration from its starting point in Place d’Italie until it reached Boulevard Montparnasse where violence broke out as demonstrators stormed a building site and began to hurl wooden palettes at riot police. When a group of casseurs then attacked and trashed the ground floor of the Hôpital Necker, the Paris Children’s Hospital, I decided that enough was enough. I stopped recording and left.
Philippe Martinez, leader of the CGT union, blamed hooligan elements on the fringe of the protest for the attack on the hospital saying it was ‘scandalous’ and ‘completely unacceptable’. And he may be right. But hooligans aside, there was a tone to Tuesday’s demonstration that seemed to make violence inevitable.
Recently, I watched again the film Sicko by the American documentary filmmaker, author and activist, Michael Moore, in which there is a quote which says: “The difference between America and France is that in America the people are frightened of the government whereas in France the government are frightened of the people.”
Faced with the current impasse between the French government and the CGT further demonstrations are planned for the 23rd and 28th June. It remains to be seen to what extent the government are frightened of the people, assuming the CGT can be considered to represent the people.
In any event I shall not be there to record what happens. The attack on the children’s hospital was only one of the disgusting acts I saw on Tuesday – and not only from the ‘hooligans’. For me, enough is enough!
I did record the sounds of the violence in Boulevard Montparnasse and the trashing of the children’s hospital. The recordings have been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive so they will be available to researchers in the future but I thought the sounds inappropriate to include here.
SEARCH WIKIPEDIA FOR ‘Paris Flood’ and this is what you will most likely find:
“In late January 1910, following months of high rainfall, the Seine River flooded Paris when water pushed upwards from overflowing sewers and subway tunnels, and seeped into basements through fully saturated soil. The waters did not overflow the river’s banks within the city, but flooded Paris through tunnels, sewers, and drains. In neighbouring towns both east and west of the capital, the river rose above its banks and flooded the surrounding terrain directly.”
Fast forward a hundred years or so to the beginning of June 2016 and the question on most Parisians’ minds was: “Will history repeat itself?”
Place Louis Aragon; 4th Arrondissement; June 2016
After a prolonged period of rain last month, the waters of the Seine, Loire and Yonne rivers began to rise alarmingly. In the départements of Loiret and Seine-et-Marne the rivers broke their banks causing what French President, François Holland, described as a “real catastrophe”.
In Paris, the Seine didn’t break its banks but, rising to some 6.3 metres above normal on the night of Friday 3rd June, it came dangerously close.
The sight of dirty brown water and debris floating through the centre of the city was surreal.
Although the Seine didn’t break its banks in the city, the quais on either side of the river were completely flooded giving a clue at least as to what those in the worst affected départements were experiencing.
A five-minute walk from my home, the Seine had completely covered an island jutting out into the river. The Parisian green benches, the skateboard park and the honey farm with its beehives were completely submerged.
A nearby tennis court was looking the worse for wear.
And the péniches (houseboats) had been cast adrift.
On Saturday 4th June the news was that although the water hadn’t fallen, at least it had stopped rising and so, with the photograph of the policemen shown at the beginning of this post standing in front of the Viaduc d’Austerlitz in 1910 in mind, I went to the same place to see what I could find.
Completed in 1904, the Viaduc d’Austerlitz is a 140-metre single-span bridge built to carry the trains of Métro Line 5 over the Seine from the Quai de la Rapée to the Gare d’Austerlitz and back again. With an 8.5 metre wide deck suspended 11 metres above the river the bridge was designed to make it easily navigable for river traffic.
During the recent crisis all river traffic was suspended because the exceptionally high water level made the bridges over the Seine impassable.
Underneath the bridge the quay is usually open to pedestrians and vehicular traffic but on Saturday it was flooded despite a hastily erected barrier being in place.
What does a flood sound like? Would there be a sound-rich raging torrent of water crashing it’s way through the city?
I thought about this as I watched the water rise over several days and I discovered that it didn’t happen like that. There was no raging torrent but instead, an almost silent, inexorable flow of water calmly engulfing everything in its path.
On Saturday, with the floodwater passing by me and the trains of Metro Line 5 passing overhead, I recorded the sounds around the Viaduc d’Austerlitz. It wasn’t the sounds of the vast quantity of ugly brown water flowing along the river that caught my attention but rather the more delicate sounds on the flooded quais.
The Paris flood 2016 around the Viaduc d’Austerlitz:
With a repetition of the catastrophic Paris flood of 1910 avoided, the floodwater is beginning to recede. Water pumps have been drafted in, the clean-up operation has begun and the cost is being estimated somewhere between €600 million and €2 billion.
It’s easy to lament the situation in Paris over the past few days: the flooded quayside bars and restaurants, the péniches cast adrift, the closure of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay to move their collections from ground level to higher floors, the occasional power outage and the closure of some Métro stations and part of RER Line ‘C’.
But let’s not forget the 4 dead, at least 24 injured and thousands of residents in towns such as Nemours and Montargis who saw their homes submerged and shop owners left counting the cost as the town centres were inundated by the floods.