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!
LA PRESIDENTIELLE, the French Presidential election is over for another five years. The climax came on Sunday when the result of the second round of voting was declared at 8.00 pm. The French people voted for change and elected François Hollande over the incumbent President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
It was back in 1981 when the last socialist President, François Mitterand, was elected in France so this Sunday’s result was very significant for the Hollande supporters. They gathered in vast numbers in the Place de la Bastille and I joined them to savour the atmosphere.
I arrived in Place de la Bastille some two hours before the election result was declared but even then the enthusiastic crowd was gathering.
Atmosphere in La Place de la Bastille:
You have to hand it to the French, they certainly know how to celebrate in vast numbers and with good humour.
As 8.00 pm approached the excitement became palpable and when the result became clear the party began.
François Hollande Wins:
Sarkozy Concession Speech:
Hollande Acceptance Speech:
Nicolas Sarkozy is the eleventh Euro-Zone leader to lose office since the debt crisis took hold in 2009. Le Changement does indeed seem to be Maintenant!
TUESDAY, 1st MAY WAS a public holiday in France – La Fête du Travail. In Paris, it was an opportunity for the whole spectrum of political opinion to take to the streets. The Left marched from Denfert-Rechereau to Bastille, Nicolas Sarkozy held a UMP rally at Trocadéro and the far-right Front National used the occasion to mark the 600th anniversary of the birth of Jeanne d’Arc, Maid of Orléans and national heroine of France.
Such a wide political spectrum on display and the prospect of interesting sounds to collect gave me quite a problem in deciding whom to follow.
In the end, I decided to follow the Front National, the smallest of the events but perhaps, I thought, the most interesting. Since I’ve lived in Paris I’ve seen, followed and recorded endless marches and demonstrations by the Left in various guises but never anything by the far Right. This seemed like an opportunity to redress that balance. I joined their march at the statue of Jeanne d’Arc in the rue Rivoli and followed it to the Place de l’Opéra.
Sounds of the march:
More sounds of the march:
At the Place de l’Opéra the procession congregated in front of and around the Opéra Garnier. A stage had been erected on the steps of the Opéra with a large backdrop featuring Jeanne d’Arc.
I arrived at l’Opéra about forty-five minutes before the speeches began so I had time to look around. I found this delightful lady whose politics I couldn’t share but whose personality was absolutely infectious.
I was also reminded that although this was a public holiday, for at least one radio reporter this was a working day. She had recorded some vox pops and was editing them on her Nagra ARES before sending them by satellite link to her radio station.
For the Front National faithful the centrepiece of the day came at midday with the speeches. Given the Front National’s remarkable result in the first round of La Presidentielle where they achieved almost 20% of the vote the speeches were eagerly anticipated.
Jean-Marie Le Penn spoke first. He is the former leader of the Front National and now the Président d’Honneur. At the end of his speech he introduced his daughter, Marine Le Penn, the current Président of La Front National.
Jean-Marie Le Penn:
Marine Le Penn:
After following the march and listening to the speeches (Marine Le Penn spoke for about an hour) I was exhausted. I did though find the energy to go to Trocadéro where I emerged from the Métro station into a crowd of 200,000 Sarkozy supporters … but that is another story.
ONE YEAR AGO, FRANCE was in the grip of a wave of public protests, or manifestations as the French call them, about pension reform. A year has passed and it all seems a long time ago.
The major protests occurred during October and early November last year and I attended them all. So, on the anniversary of those protests I was minded to listen again to the recordings I made at the time.
You have to say, the French really do know how to organise a manifestation. Hundreds of thousands of people seem to take to the streets at the drop of a hat. I’ve seen many of these demonstrations and although they seem to work to a tired formula – the same people, the same banners and the same slogans, I nevertheless find them interesting. It’s the crowd dynamics that really fascinate me.
For the most part, these demonstrations although passionate are usually pretty good-natured and although some sections of the crowd can be quite aggressive, wanton violence seldom breaks out. I’ve often wondered why this should be so.
There are probably many reasons why these demonstrations seldom get out of control but I think that one major element is the use of sound. After listening again to many of the recordings I’ve made of these events it’s become clear to me that amongst the whistling, shouting and apparently random noise, there is a powerful sound architecture in play which acts both as a means of expression and, at the same time, as a means of control. If you listen to the following sounds you’ll see what I mean.
Rhythms of Protest:
From a distance, these manifestations may look like a random group of people filling the streets but in fact they are very well organised. For the most part they comprise individual groups each representing an organisation, a profession, or a special interest group. The individual groups can be made up of thousands of people or a mere handful and yet the group dynamics are the same for each. Each group has its leader and its followers. The leaders lead by orchestrating the behaviour of their group and sound plays a very important part in this. The instrument they use most often is the chant in the form of a call and response, the leader calls and the crowd responds. This can be a very powerful instrument and its power derives from the use rhythm and repetition.
The group leader sets the tone by choosing the words or phrases to be repeated and then manipulating the rhythm of the chant. Sometimes the changes of rhythm are obvious but often they are very subtle. As well as changing the rhythm the leader often changes a word or a phrase in the chant and the crowd responds accordingly.
What can be disturbing to watch and to listen to is how the leader can whip a crowd into frenzy by using sound. You can hear an example of this in the last three minutes or so of my sound piece beginning with the chant, “Tous Ensemble … Tous Ensemble … “. I can remember at the time finding this quite chilling.
So, what has all this to do with the lack of real violence at most French demonstrations? My conclusion is that sound is an important key. The chanting is a vehicle for protest; it allows the people to speak and to be heard. The repetition and rhythms of the chanting seems to impose a discipline on the crowds as well as retaining their interest and enthusiasm. The chanting also seems to have a bonding effect creating the atmosphere of working as a team. 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.
I think there is another side to the coin though. My recordings demonstrate the power of a leader to manipulate a crowd through the use of sound and history has taught us that we should be very wary of that. Such is the power of sound.
LIVING IN PARIS I’ve attended and recorded countless manifestations, the demonstrations that the French are so good at producing at the drop of a hat. These days I get rather bored with them. French demonstrations work to a tired, worn-out script, which is well past its sell-by date.
But, occasionally one comes across a demonstration that has passion and real meaning.
Last Saturday, after a day of fruitless sound hunting, I arrived at the Place du Châtelet where I found a group of Syrians demonstrating in support of their cause, to free Syria from the tyranny of the Assad regime.
A small but passionate gathering making its voice heard … including this lady:
Two Syrian ladies either side of me grasped my hands and pulled me into the circle of people surrounding a man making his own distinctive protest.
I had no hesitation in accepting their invitation. The people around me were Syrians, a people I know little about. What I learned was that they are friendly, passionate people determined to rid Syria of a repressive dictatorship that has gone on for far too long.
This was not a typical French demonstration that brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets at the whim of the CGT, the French communist led trades union, in pursuit of a lost cause. This was a heartfelt demonstration by Paris based Syrians with a passionate love for their country. And none more so than this lady who spoke from her heart. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying but her passion was telling.
This passionate group of people were able to occupy the Place du Châtelet and express their point of view in public without fear of being shot at or murdered. Not so in Syria I’m afraid.