MY WEEK HAS BEEN fascinating. It has stretched from the beautiful city of Wroclaw, the largest city in western Poland and the European City of Culture 2016, to the streets of Paris and a cloud of tear gas!
From the 19th to the 22nd May, the city of Wroclaw hosted the Musica Electronica Nova Festival during which and I was invited to perform my field recording composition, Paris – A Sound Tapestry, in the Sound Cinema at the impressive National Forum of Music and then to give a lecture, Listening to Paris, at the Institute of Musicology at the University of Wroclaw.
The National Forum of Music, Wroclaw
I also had the opportunity to meet up with my friends from the Soundscape Research Studio, part of the Institute of Cultural Studies at the University of Wroclaw, and to do a soundwalk around historic Wroclaw with them. I couldn’t have been in better hands because my friends have written a book about the Wroclaw soundscape: The Sounds of Wrocław, edited by Renata Tańczuk and Robert Losiak, published by Wrocław University Press.
And as a bonus, before flying back to Paris I was taken to see the Hala Stulecia, the Centennial Hall.
The Hala Stulecia in Wroclaw : Image via Wikipedia
This ‘cathedral of democracy’, a milestone in the history of reinforced concrete architecture, was designed by the architect Max Berg and built between 1911 and 1913. When it was opened, the Hala Stulecia was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My trip to Wroclaw was idyllic; a beautiful city, charming people and glorious sunshine every day. My return to France on the other hand was quite different.
I came back to a country mired in protests and strikes paralysing power stations, oil refineries and the railways and the country’s largest trade union, which at best only represents 3% of the workforce, seemingly determined to bring the government to its knees.
The turmoil began earlier this year, after the government announced it wanted to make changes to the Code de Travail – a 3,000-page book that sets out all of France’s employment law. Earlier this month, the government forced a watered down version of its new labour law, the Loi El Khomri as it’s known, through the French parliament without a vote. Since then industrial action has escalated sometimes spiralling into violence.
Thursday of this week saw yet another national day of protest against the government’s proposals, the eighth so far. Thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and so, with my sonic journalist’s hat on, I went to record what was inevitably going to be a major news event.
When you’ve attended as many street protests in Paris as I have it’s easy to become complacent and think that they all follow the same formula and they’re all predictable. And often they are; the same people carrying the same banners, chanting the same slogans and sometimes getting angry but without resorting to violence.
But this demonstration was different.
Youths wearing face masks, eye protectors, gas masks and crash helmets had clearly not come out for a walk in the park.
Whilst the vast majority of the demonstrators were content to wave their banners, chant their slogans and get angry, a small minority, mainly youngsters, were intent on taunting the police and instigating violence – and they were clearly equipped for the consequences.
I joined the manifestation as it left Place de la Bastille and made my way to the front where about 100 youngsters were assembled. Some of them broke ranks to leave their mark on nearby shop windows.
The CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), the riot police, maintain a discreet presence at all demonstrations in Paris. They are seldom to be found on the main manifestation route but rather out of sight in side streets well away from the protestors from where they can be called upon if necessary.
The youngsters at the head of the manifestation, intent on confrontation and responding to the exhortation, “Avancez! Avancez!” by one of their leaders, deviated from the official route into a side street where the CRS were waiting for them. As the youngsters advanced, trashing cars, overturning motorcycles and wrecking a bus stop as they did so, the police formed up across the end of the street and slowly moved forward towards them.
As the police approached, the youths began hurling stones and any other objects that came to hand at them and at anyone else who happened to be nearby – including me. This provocation produced a response from the police – a fusillade of tear gas.
All in a Day’s Work:
Caught between the protestors and the police and smothered in a cloud of tear gas I had no alternative but to join some of the others caught in the mêlée and take flight in search of fresh air.
In total, sixteen arrests were made during this confrontation while the rest of the manifestation continued on to Place de la Nation without further incident.
Unless the deadlock between the unions and the government is broken, another national day of protest is scheduled for 14th June – enough time then for me to buy a crash helmet and a gas mask!
While my visit to Wroclaw this week was very special – an opportunity not only to see a beautiful city but also to share my work with others and to talk about sound with friends and like-minded people – recording the sounds of a riot in Paris on Thursday was simply all in a day’s work.
AHEAD OF THE PARLIAMENTARY debate about controversial changes to the French labour laws, people took to the streets of Paris again last Sunday. This May Day demonstration was another in a series of protests and strikes opposing the proposed changes embodied in the loi El Khomri.
One characteristic of the opposition to the loi El Khomri is the active involvement of students in the protests.
France has a long history of youth protest movements – from May 1968 to the rallies against pension reform in 2010 – but a relatively new phenomenon has emerged this year, the Nuit Debout (Arise at Night), a movement similar to the Occupy initiative that mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in 2011.
Since 31st March this year, students and others have been ‘occupying’ Place de la République in Paris throughout the night to ‘reflect on the future of our world’, according to their website. Similar movements have also sprung up elsewhere in France.
And students have been particularly vociferous in their opposition to the loi El Khomri.
Leading the official May Day manifestation in Paris were representatives of Force Ouvrière, one of the five main union federations in France and ahead of them, in an unofficial demonstration, were students under the watchful eye of the police.
And, of course, I was there too recording the events.
Sounds of the Manifestation du Premier Mai:
I arrived in Place de la Bastille to find a large collection of musicians occupying the steps of the l’Opéra Bastille. I stopped to listen to them for a while before making my way along the line of demonstrators forming up in Rue de Lyon. At the head of the line was the Force Ouvrière contingent together with burly men forming a protective cordon. Inside the cordon the press pack were gathered, radio, TV and newspaper journalists, and so I joined them.
Surviving in the midst of a predatory press pack could be the subject of a blog post all of its own but suffice it to say that with considerable chutzpah and judicious use of my elbows I managed to get close to the front of the pack to record the secrétaire général de Force ouvrière, Jean-Claude Mailly, speaking to the press. You can listen to what he had to say five minutes into my sound piece above.
When he was asked about the prospect of violence occurring during the demonstration, Monsieur Mailly said that he was only responsible for the actions of his group and not for the actions of others and the police were there to prevent violence.
No sooner had he said that than the first arrest of the day was made just a few metres ahead of us to which the crowd responded.
One of the unpleasant features of the recent demonstrations has been the presence of casseurs (smashers or breakers) – hooded or masked youths infiltrating demonstrations, smashing shop windows, torching cars, beating and robbing passers-by and throwing assorted missiles at the police. The young man arrested close to us was one of these casseurs.
The manifestation processed from Place de la Bastille to Place de la Nation but I didn’t go with them. Instead, I stayed in Rue de Lyon and recorded all of the demonstrators as they passed me, the majority of whom were perfectly good-natured.
As I am writing this, the French parliament are debating the loi El Khomri and protestors are camped out in the streets making their voices heard.
As it stands, the proposed new law pleases neither the unions nor the employers – and certainly not the students. How this impasse is resolved remains to be seen but I can’t help feeling that there could be many more recording opportunities still to come before the matter is settled.
LED BY STUDENT GROUPS and labour unions, thousands of people gathered in Place de la République in Paris on Saturday afternoon to step up their campaign against the government’s controversial labour reform bill. This was the latest in a series of strikes and protests against the bill and further protests are expected at the end of April.
The architect of the labour reform bill is Myriam El Khomri, the Minister of Labour, and so the bill has adopted her name, becoming the Loi El Khomri. She says the reforms will encourage businesses to hire more workers by deregulating many aspects of France’s notoriously rigid labour laws.
In 2012, François Hollande was elected French President on a pledge to curb unemployment and make ‘youth’ his priority, yet unemployment in France remains stubbornly high at around 10% and unemployment for the under-25s has crept up to an alarming 26%.
Hollande, currently the most unpopular president in France’s recent history, has said that he will not run again for the presidency in 2017 if he cannot cut the country’s high unemployment figures and he hopes the labour reforms will encourage firms to hire more staff.
However, pressure from the street and from parliament has caused the government to water down the proposals so that they apply only to large firms.
Parliament is set to vote on the reforms in late April or early May.
I went Place de la République on Saturday afternoon to mingle with the demonstrators and to record the sounds of protest.
Sounds of the manifestation contre la Loi El Khomri:
There was an almost festive atmosphere to the manifestation tarnished only by some masked youths who clashed briefly with police near Place de la Bastille.
Trouble at large street demonstrations in Paris is unusual and I believe one reason for that is the power of sound. Sound is an integral part of the demonstration; the chanting, with its subtle use of rhythm and repetition, creates a sound architecture that allows the people to speak and to be heard but it also imposes a discipline on the crowd as well as retaining their interest and enthusiasm.
It seems to me that if the demonstrators feel that they are acting together in an orchestrated way and that their voice is being heard then perhaps they are less likely to resort to indiscriminate violence to make their point.
If you want to know more about the labour reform bill, this is the complete texte du projet de loi El Khomri.
FRENCH FARMERS ARE ANGRY and on Thursday their anger spilled over from the French countryside to the streets of Paris.
Hundreds of farmers and more than 1,300 tractors converged on the city in the latest protest against collapsing incomes.
From all parts of the country, farmers and their tractors trundled along the major roads into the capital on Thursday morning. Many Parisian commuters took police advice and travelled to work by public transport to avoid the disruption.
While the farmers were converging on Place de la Nation in the east of the city, their spokesman Xavier Beulin, Président de la Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles and his delegation were meeting the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is not unsympathetic to their cause.
Following the meeting with the Prime Minister, Xavier Beulin addressed the farmers in Place de la Nation on Thursday afternoon. You can listen to their response in the sound piece below.
French farmers are facing stiff competition. Production costs in neighbouring countries are much lower, they have been hit by tough competition between supermarkets as well as a Russian embargo on EU food imports, and dairy farmers in particular have seen incomes collapse because of over-production on the world market.
Just six weeks ago, the government came up with a package of debt relief worth €600 million. But the farmers say they need much more, arguing that French agriculture is on the verge of collapse. They are seeking tax breaks from the government as well as action from the EU in Brussels.
Sounds of French farmers in Place de la Nation on Thursday:
French farmers have been particularly vocal throughout this summer, blocking roads on the German border and targeting major tourist destinations such as the Mont Saint-Michel peninsula.
Some of the farmers who were in Place de la Nation on Thursday will be joining a pan-European protest on Monday in Brussels during a meeting of EU agriculture ministers.
IT WAS THE LARGEST number of people ever to fill the streets of Paris. Somewhere between one-and-a-half and two million people stretching from Place de la République to Place de la Nation in a display of unity and solidarity.
Last week, two gunmen killed twelve people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo while another man murdered a police officer and then four hostages at a kosher supermarket in the east of Paris. These tragic events left the city and the country shocked but unbowed.
The offices of Charlie Hebdo where the attack took place
Outside the Charlie Hebdo offices after the attack
Tributes left at the site where the police officer, Ahmed Merabet, was shot in the head as he lay wounded in the street.
Over the last sixteen years, I’ve witnessed countless marches and demonstrations in Paris but I’ve never experienced anything quite like Sunday’s march.
The march was attended by over forty heads of government from Europe and the Middle east but the day was not about them – it was about ordinary people standing up and being counted; ordinary people demonstrating the power of unity and freedom of expression over fanaticism and terror.
Vive la France – Vive la Liberté!
Sounds of the Charlie Hebdo march:
ONE YEAR AGO I stood in place de la Bastille amongst a jubilant crowd as they received the news that François Holland had been elected Président de la République, the first French socialist president to have been elected since François Mitterand back in 1981. I produced a piece for this blog about that evening in which I said, “As 8.00 pm approached the excitement became palpable and when the result became clear the party began.”
Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2012
One year on and the party’s over, the excitement has evaporated and the opinion polls show that François Hollande is now the most unpopular president in modern French history.
Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2013
On Sunday crowds once again filled place de la Bastille, not to celebrate but to protest at what they see as betrayal. In a nutshell, their argument is that François Hollande was elected last May on the back of a promise to spare France the austerity measures imposed elsewhere in Europe. Instead, the French government has cut spending, increased taxes, reduced hiring in the public sector and introduced plans to allow companies to cut workers’ hours during economic downturns. Meanwhile, France’s economy has continued to deteriorate, with growth stagnating and unemployment rising above 10%.
Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets on Sunday. According to the police they numbered 30,000 while the organisers, Le Front de Gauche, put the figure at 180,000. How the police and demonstration organisers always come up with such widely varying estimates of crowd numbers continues to baffle me. All I can say is that I was in place de la Bastille when the demonstration moved off on its march to place de la Nation and I was there three hours later as the tail end of the march was just setting off.
This demonstration was the brainchild of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche coalition. One time government minister and member of the French Senate, Mélenchon has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. He now heads the Front de Gauche comprising the Unitarian Left (Gauche Unitaire), the Federation for a Social and Ecological Alternative (Fédération pour une alternative sociale et écologique, FASE), Republic and Socialism (République et socialisme), Convergences and Alternative (Convergences et alternative), the Anticapitalist Left (Gauche anticapitaliste), the Workers’ Communist Party of France (Parti communiste des ouvriers de France, PCOF) and The Alternative (Les alternatifs).
Jean-Luc Mélenchon came to national prominence in 2010 during the huge demonstrations against pension reform and in 2012 he represented Le Front de Gauche in the French presidential election where he came in fourth place with 11.05% of the vote.
Marching under the banner Marche citoyenne pour la 6e République, the Front de Gauche want to see, according to one of the leaflets handed to me, a sweeping away of the current constitution and fundamental change to the way things are done – an end to the dominance of the financial markets, a democratisation of the institutions, more power to the people, new and greater rights to employees, a democratisation of elections with proportional representation and genuine independence of justice without conflicts of interest.
Marche citoyenne pour la 6éme République:
These street demonstrations are always colourful and loud and for the most part good-natured, although I will have something to say about that in a moment.
On Sunday there was the usual mix of serious minded protestors, occasional eccentrics and endless loudspeaker vans blasting out slogans and music at full volume often drowning out the chants of the marchers. The cacophony of sound can be overpowering especially to promiscuous microphones that pick up anything and everything. So for the sound hunter, capturing the atmosphere of such large demonstrations is a challenge.
In the sound piece above I’ve tried to give you a flavour of the atmosphere and to highlight some of the distinctive sounds. In the next piece, I will give you a flavour of what it’s like to walk amongst a crowd of tens of thousands of people. It’s a walk from the Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette, which on a normal day takes about two minutes. On Sunday it took me closer to twenty minutes (and I was lucky to do it that quickly) as I weaved my way through the throngs of people.
Walking from Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette:
My final sound piece though tells a different story.
As I said earlier, street demonstrations in Paris are usually pretty good-natured and pass off without any trouble. The largest demonstration I’ve attended was the massive protest against pension reform in 2010 when one million people took to the streets. Even with a demonstration of that size and with passions running very high, I saw nothing that could be described as trouble. On Sunday though, I saw something I’ve never seen before and I also learned something about the Front de Gauche.
This group of Africans were at the very back of the demonstration and it was them that I joined some three hours after the leading demonstrators had left place de la Bastille. True, unlike most of the other demonstrators, they were not protesting specifically about la finance et l’austérité although they all professed sympathy with the aims of the demonstration.
Their specific concern was for the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. They were demonstrating for the release of political prisoners in that country and in particular for the release of Simone Gbagbo. You can find out more about the former French colony of Côte d’Ivoire here.
To be honest, I know very little about Côte d’Ivoire other than what I occasionally glimpse on French TV news and, until Sunday, I wasn’t at all sure who Simone Gbagbo was. But these people clearly felt they had a point to make and they were doing it peacefully and with enthusiasm. In my experience it is quite usual for minority groups with off-piste interests to meld into large demonstrations.
All was well until the time came for them to move off and follow the tail end of the larger demonstration. I had moved slightly ahead of them when I was aware of a scuffle taking place behind me. I turned round to see three or four young white men all sporting Front de Gauche stickers trying to break up the African group. The African stewards were brilliant. They responded swiftly by shepherding the African group away from the trouble and calm ensued. What happened next I simply found beyond belief.
When I turned round to look towards the larger demonstration about twenty or thirty Front de Gauche people, men and women, all white, had linked arms and facing the African group had formed a double cordon to prevent the Africans getting close to the main demonstration. Not only that, but when the Africans remonstrated, the language from the all white cordon was, how shall I say … provocative.
Here’s how events unfolded:
What seemed to have escaped the attention of the all French, all white, cordon was, as one of the Africans told me with passion in her voice, “We are all French citizens!”
I must say that for me, the man in charge of the African group – the man in the orange cap, white trousers and holding the microphone in the picture above, was the hero of the hour. He showed real leadership, not by responding as vocally as some of his group but by exerting the sheer force of his personality, calmly talking to people and getting the music and the chanting going again.
I must also say, that having seen what I did, any sympathy I may have had for Le Front de Gauche, and I did have some, melted away in an instant as their darker side revealed itself.
The all white, all French, cordon clearly believed that Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is a wonderful thing … so long as you’re white and French. If you’re black and African then it seems to be quite a different story.
THE MARCHING SEASON continues in Paris. Last Tuesday it was a manifestation Contre la Crise et l’Austérité and on Saturday it was an anti-nuclear demonstration starting from Place de la Bastille.
Timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the disaster at Fukushima in Japan the idea of this manifestation was to form a human chain as a protest to stop both the civil and military use of nuclear power.
By the standards of most manifestations in Paris the turnout was meagre but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in enthusiasm.
In the Place de la Bastille a stage had been erected which was to be used for a concert in the evening at the end of the manifestation but in the early afternoon it was used for the introductory speeches.
One of the speeches involved the reading of a letter sent from a Japanese journalist in Fukushima.
Letter from Fukushima:
After the speeches the protest got under way with the demonstrators splitting into two groups, one to the Avenue Henry IV and the other to the rue de Lyon. I followed the rue de Lyon party as they made their human chain and marched to the Gare de Lyon.
Sounds of Protest:
This was certainly not the biggest or most spectacular manifestation that I’ve seen in Paris, and I’ve seen most of them, but it’s always good to see people taking to the streets and standing up for what they believe in.
It was on 30th September last year when the last big demonstration against the austerity plans contained in the EU fiscal pact took place here in Paris but the discontent has been bubbling away ever since.
On Tuesday thousands of demonstrators marched in towns and cities across France to protest against plans to allow companies to cut workers’ hours during economic downturns – a policy central to President Francois Hollande’s jobs and growth strategy.
The demonstrations were led by two trade unions, CGT, Confédération générale du travail and Force Ouvrière, both of whom are opposed to the recent labour deal central to Hollande’s efforts to restore competitiveness which was agreed in January by three mainstream unions and employers and should pass into law next month. The “flexicurity” reform will mean more job security for workers on short-term contracts while making it easier for firms to cut work hours if orders dry up. It also gives them new rights to dismiss any staff who refuse to participate.
I caught up with the sights and sounds of the demonstration in Paris.
Sounds of protest:
PROTESTS TOOK PLACE in Paris and across the rest of France last Saturday in response to the “Marriage and Adoption for All” bill which proposes to legalise gay marriage and adoption for French citizens.
In Paris, somewhere around 100,000 people including Catholic groups and other supporters of traditional family rights, gathered at Place Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement to make their voices heard.
Protests at Place Denfert-Rochereau:
France already allows civil unions between same-sex couples but, despite opposition from more than 1,000 French mayors and the Catholic Church, President Francois Hollande has promised to change French law so that gay and lesbian couples can marry. The government approved a bill on the issue earlier this month and it will be debated by parliament in January.
The proposed legislation will replace the entries in a child’s registry book from “father”’ and “mother” to “parent 1” and “parent 2”.
An Ifop (l’Institut Français d’Opinion Publique) poll in August 2012 found that 65% of respondents were in favour of same-sex marriage, while 53% supported adoption rights for same-sex couples.
THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS are over so now it must be the marching season, the time when the streets of Paris resound to the sights and sounds of protest.
I was in the Place de la Bastille on that memorable Sunday evening back in early May when the crowds celebrated as François Holland was swept into power as Président de la République. Since then his honeymoon as President has been a short one, his approval rating slumped to a low of 43 percent in one poll last week. On Sunday, he faced his first major display of public anger as thousands of people gathered in the Place de la Nation to protest against the austerity plans contained in the EU fiscal pact or le traité sur la stabilité, la coordination et la gouvernance (TSCG) as it’s known here. A draft law concerning this budget discipline pact is being debated in the lower house of parliament this week and it’s expected to be approved by both houses of parliament.
I’ve never been known to miss a good street protest, so I went to along to record the sights and sounds.
According to the Front de Gauche who organised this manifestation, some sixty organisations took part mainly representing the far-left – the Parti Communiste, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, the Parti Ouvrier Indépendant, Attac, the CGT trades union and many others. Conspicuous by their absence were representatives of the Parti Socialiste, François Holland’s party, who now of course form the government. Estimates of the numbers attending vary wildly. The lowest estimate I’ve seen put the number at 40,000 but it could have been more. I arrived early as the crowd gathered in Place de la Nation and I spent the afternoon capturing the sights and sounds around me.
A high spot for me was when the very nice people at Radio France allowed me to take a picture inside their outside broadcast van. This may have been a diversion from the matter in hand but once a sound enthusiast, always a sound enthusiast and I never miss the opportunity to look at a Nagra sound recorder!
So here then is my record of the afternoon.
NON au traité d’austérité – Part One:
In my experience, the French are very mature when it comes to demonstrations like this. Although this crowd were clearly very passionate about the issue and, despite the very large numbers, everything was very good-natured and I saw no signs of trouble anywhere. The only moment of anxiety I had was when an ambulance arrived and tried to go down a road that was entirely blocked by demonstrators. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the crowd separated and let the ambulance pass but several of them spilled over onto the pavement, including me, but I survived unscathed.
NON au traité d’austérité – Part Two:
On May 1st this year I attended and recorded a rally by the far-right Front National for this blog. On Sunday it was the turn of the far-left. Both events may have been poles apart politically but both took place free of trouble. I rather like living in a country where people of any hue can take to the streets and make their voices heard without wanton violence breaking out and where the privilege to protest unhindered sits comfortably alongside the will to do it responsibly.
And as for the traité d’austérité …. we shall see!