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June 18, 2016

11

Enough is Enough!

by soundlandscapes

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.

01

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:

02

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!

03

Note:

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.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. hmunro
    Jun 18 2016

    Imagine vandalising a children’s hospital! I share your outrage. It’s disgusting, and beyond comprehension.

    It will be interesting to see whether the CGT union is barred from organizing manifs in the future, as some in government are suggesting after this disaster. For my part, I’m relieved you don’t plan on recording any more protests by this group. I fear they’ve become a magnet for people who are merely seeking an excuse to incite or commit violence.

    Reply
    • Jun 20 2016

      Thank you, Heather.

      The whole tone of this manifestation was quite unlike anything I’ve experienced in Paris before. There was a chilling menace in the air.

      I think M. Martinez was being disingenuous when he said that the violence was caused by hooligans ‘on the fringe’ of the manifestation. I was there and I can attest that ‘the fringe’ to which he referred was directly in front of him at the head of the CGT contingent. So, we’ll see what happens next time.

      Reply
      • hmunro
        Jun 20 2016

        The fact that the GCT bused in people from other cities was another red flag for me. I suppose M. Martinez could say the union was simply trying to give more people a voice, but others may rightly wonder whether it was an attempt to artificially swell the numbers and create a mob. No matter the intent, however, it may all backfire. As you say, we’ll see what happens next time. Thank you again for your always-superb réportage! You remain my #1 preferred source for Paris news.

  2. Jun 19 2016

    My wife and I recently returned from a month in the city. Seems there was a three day weekend every weekend we were there celebrating occasions we don’t have in the US. And there were a number of transportation strikes to deal with that affected our ability to move around the city and wnjoy our holiday. A slowdown in the bus service had me walking a mile to a bus stop that I might have caught on my way back to our apartment. The,digital aign read 54 minutes for the next bus to arrive. I waited the 54 minutes only to have the sign finally read “no service!” Sine I am walking impared I had to take a taxi for twelve euros mmore than the bus would have cost. Several Communist Labor Party assemblies and parades also impared our travels. I have visite your fair city for over nine times in the last eleven years and I find that a city whose large part of commerce comes from tourism is necomming more and more toirist unfriendly.

    The hours worked per week by the average Parisian are anywhere from five to fifteen hours less than their American counterparts. Many of us wonder how few hours these striking union members want to work each week. At least unions in Paris have mostly survived where in our country few still exist. Most workers in France have pensions to rely on after retirement where pensions are all but non existant in the US. The average Parisian get s a lunch break thirty to sixty minutes longer per day than the average American. This leads us to wonder if the workers in your countey realiz how well thy have it in comparison to the rest of the world.

    We have holigans raising our streets and damaging our commercial properties on a large scale several times a year in some major cities but o have labor unions infolved in this kind of practice is dispicable.

    I’m not sure that Michael Moore got it right when he said we are afraid of the government in this country. Nor am I sure the government is afraid of the unions in your country. But I know many tourists may soon become afraid to visit your country and especially your city if the unions persist in their shenanigans.

    Reply
    • Jun 20 2016

      Thank you for your very interesting comment, Dominic. You’ve raised several interesting points.

      Yes, May was perhaps not the best month to visit Paris this year. On the upside we were blessed with several public holidays during the month (incidentally, if a public holiday falls on a weekend we forfeit it) and on the downside the strikes and protests were in full swing.

      The number of strikes in France has fallen considerably over the last few years. The current surge is related to the new labour law and is the exception rather than the rule.

      I can quite understand how the manifestations impaired your travels – and mine too. But at least we live in a country where people are sufficiently engaged in politics to take to the streets to make their voices heard and where they are allowed to do so. Violence at street demonstrations is very rare. The violence last week is very much the exception.

      Just to clarify one point you made: You referred to several ‘Communist Labor Party assemblies’. It is true that the CGT, the largest trade union in France, is communist led but that doesn’t mean that all it’s members adhere to the communist party in fact, the majority of them don’t. Most other trade unions have no affiliation to or any association with the communist party.

      You also refer to the hours worked in France compared to those worked in the US and you’re quite right, the French do work less hours, take longer lunches and get more holidays. And yet … productivity in France is not only the highest in Europe, it exceeds that in the US. Figures from both the IMF and OECD confirm that. On the whole, the French work to live rather than live to work. And, as someone told me a long time ago: ‘It’s not the hours you do that matter – but what you do in the hours’.

      Your point about tourists being afraid to visit France is a good one. I saw the travel advice from your State Department. All I can tell you is that I am not French; I chose to live here and I don’t regret that decision for one second.

      If you haven’t been put off too much by your latest trip to Paris and you intend to come back again please do get in touch, it would be great to meet up and have a very long lunch!

      Reply
      • Jun 20 2016

        Thanks for your reply and clarification on several points. And since I’m recently retired, a self employed general contractor usually working sixty hours a week, that long lunch sounds very inviting. And actually many of us work to live also but since most of our jobs have been outsourced to China, unlike France, we just have to work a bit longer and harder.
        Cheers

  3. babufischer
    Jun 20 2016

    Thank you for what you do!

    I am a historian, and I often work with historical cound recordings, fr example from the British Library or the Berlin archives.

    It’s like a glimpse into a forgotten world.

    And I, as a listener, can feel like I’m part of it for a few, precious minutes.

    I regularly listen to your Paris recordings, and I just wanted to say: thank you for all the work you put into it.

    Someday, someone will listen to it and feel like he’s part of it.

    Salut to you from Germany, Barbara

    Reply
    • Jun 20 2016

      Thank you, Barbara. You’ve made my day!

      I record sounds that reflect everyday life in Paris – and as you will have seen, sometimes life gets quite exciting! I think it’s important to capture and preserve the everyday sounds around us, the sounds we all hear but seldom stop to listen to. My hope is that researchers in the future will stumble upon these recordings and find them not only interesting but maybe even valuable.

      Reply
  4. intempestive
    Jun 21 2016

    First, as I have not commented on your website before, allow me to thank you for your work, which I have been listening and reading with great interest for quite some time. I’m French and it is certainly very interesting to hear places I know through an Englishman’s ears. Your previous recording, on the flood, was great – I just loved that sentence: “There was no raging torrent but instead, an almost silent, inexorable flow of water calmly engulfing everything in its path.”

    On this article, I must say I was surprised, though, by the way you described what happened in front of Necker. The initial press coverage from the French media sounded like a mob stormed inside the hospital and destroyed everything inside. Yet a few days later quite another account of those events came up, showing that the mob in fact amounted to 2 guys soon stopped by a third one who told them “hey, this is a kids hospital!”, and the rampage to external window panes being cracked. Le Monde or France Télévision reckognized the gap between the initial coverage and reality. An article from media scholar André Gunther sums the whole thing up: http://imagesociale.fr/3324. To add a lighter note, some demonstrators came back to post drawings for the kids: http://static3.seenthis.net/local/cache-vignettes/L240xH180/ClF_FvpWMAERe619-5bb7b.jpg

    Regarding the indeed very conflictual tone of the demonstration, as historians will certainly remind in their future analyses of 2016 in France, it must be kept in mind that the initial protest against this labour law was pacifist (notably the Nuit Debout movement), and that during those 4 months it has grown more and more conflictual as the people feel the government just won’t listen but just repress. To end with a rime to the theme of the flood, a quote from Bertold Brecht: “The headlong stream is termed violent but the river bed hemming it in is termed violent by no one.”

    Reply
    • Jun 21 2016

      Thank you very much for your considered comment.

      First, the flood:

      Like most people I suspect, I found the whole thing quite surreal. Seeing water where water shouldn’t be was uncomfortable to say the least. The volume of the water was disturbing to see but for me it was the inexorable flow of the water that made the biggest impression. Suddenly, one realised just how powerful nature can be. As I said in my post though, while it was easy to lament the situation in Paris it was nothing compared to the catastrophe in the other towns affected.

      As for the manifestation:

      Your point is well made but perhaps I can put my report into context.

      First let me say that I respect the ‘politics of the street’ that we see in France. I think that ‘ordinary’ people being politically aware and sufficiently engaged to take to the streets to express their views – and the fact that the government often takes notice – is a healthy thing. I also admire the way the majority of manifestations are self-policed; exuberance and anger tempered by self-discipline.

      I’ve followed all the manifestations contre la Loi El-Khomri in Paris and I agree with you, the early ones, if sometimes lively were certainly peaceful. In later manifestations my observation was that the mood was angrier but the main body of protesters still retained self-discipline and didn’t resort to violence.

      But of all the manifestations I’ve experienced in Paris over the last seventeen years, this latest one was different. As I said in my report, I felt an air of menace about the whole thing, an air of menace that was tangible from the time I arrived at Place d’Italie even before the manifestation set off.

      I know the violence around Montparnasse was not caused by the main body of protestors but rather by the so-called casseurs. These hooded, masked, youths formed up at the head of the manifestation were present in larger numbers than I’ve seen before and were clearly spoiling for a fight.

      Exactly how many casseurs attacked the Hôpital Necker I think misses the point. The innocent employees of a nearby immobilier left cowering on the floor as two or three casseurs smashed their shop window were also victims. And I could give you other examples.

      I think the point is: wanton violence seldom resolves disputes instead it serves to harden positions. I contend that whatever the rights or wrongs of the Loi El-Khomri, the impasse will only be resolved by negotiation not by violence.

      Finally, thank you so much for your kind comment about my work. I really appreciate it.

      Reply
  5. Rosie Belle
    Jun 25 2016

    So sad to hear of the violence. How quickly a beautiful city can turn ugly. Thank you for sharing this — and for your sensitivity to your readers in not sharing the offensive sounds. Pray that a peaceful resolution will be achieved.

    Reply

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