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.
ON SATURDAY AFTERNOON I was buying books in a very over-crowded W.H. Smiths on the corner of the rue Rivoli and the rue Cambon. I came out of the warmth of the bookstore into the chill of Paris in early winter. I turned left into the rue Cambon heading for one of my regular watering holes, Chez Flotte, where I intended to have a well-earned sit down, a small pichet of Beaujolais Nouveau and a good read. As I approached the hostelry I could hear shouting in the distance. I decided to go and investigate.
The rue Cambon was once home to Coco Chanel and her first fashion house in Paris still remains alive and well.
Other glamorous fashion shops also line the rue Cambon.
How appropriate then that at the intersection of the rue Cambon and the rue Saint-Honoré I should find a demonstration taking place – an animal rights demonstration.
A group of young women were protesting about the killing of animals and the use of their skins to provide fur coats and leather handbags for the fashion conscious Parisiennes who frequent this particular quartier of Paris.
Their message was:
These young lady protesters were clearly passionate about their cause … and I found it hard to disagree with them.
SATURDAY 6th OCTOBER – Place de la Bastille – and yet another manifestation about the French pension reform.
The mild pension reform has passed into law, the tear-gas has dispersed and petrol has returned to the pumps – but still they took to the streets. Even the heavy rain didn’t dampen their spirits.
Sounds from the manifestation:
This manifestation was led by the CGT, Confédération Générale du Travail, the largest French trade union and, although a large demonstration it was nothing compared to the one that took place in the same place on 16th October. That had huge popular support and people turned out in massive numbers to express their opposition to the pension reform. As a passive observer, I couldn’t help feeling that this latest demonstration was largely made up of the hard-core activists determined to keep the fight going even though the battle is lost. So often in the past, French governments have given in to the voice of the street sometimes by repealing legislation that caused the protests after it has been enacted into law. We shall see if that happens this time – but somehow I doubt it.
And maybe it is because the CGT doubt it too that there seemed to be a harder edge to this latest protest – a last gasp of desperation maybe.
I’ve said before that whilst the participants take these protests very seriously, they are almost always good-natured affairs. But just occasionally, someone doesn’t stick to the script. On Saturday, for the first time for a long time, I saw and encountered first-hand, some unpleasantness. At the corner of Place de la Bastille and Boulevard Beaumarchais stands a BNP bank. I rounded the corner into Boulevard Beaumarchais to record the manifestation when I was confronted by three youths wearing white face masks. Their ghostly appearance and aggressive demeanour indicated that they were not going to simply ask if I was having a good day! Instead, they were intent on throwing eggs at the two cash points in the wall of the BNP bank just behind me.
Sound of eggs smashing into cash machines:
Unsettling – yes, but as violence goes I suppose it wasn’t all that important – save for one of the eggs missing my right ear by a whisker.
And what did their particular form of protest achieve? Absolutely nothing, except perhaps for demeaning the thousands of other protestors who genuinely believed in their cause – not to mention the waste of eggs.
By contrast, there was something to cheer about – this wonderfully satirical take on the French Président, Nicolas Sarkozy. Enjoy!
Another Saturday and another manifestation – another in the series of protests and strikes against the Government’s plan to increase the pension age here in France from 60 to 62.
As usual, the starting point yesterday was the Place de la République where an enthusiastic crowd had gathered when I arrived.
The number of people protesting was huge and they completely filled the streets comprising the route from Place de la République to Nation via Place de la Bastille.
This manifestation was made up of all sorts of people representing all sorts of organisations – including these anarchists.
It also included a rich cocktail of unions and students … historically a potentially potent combination in France.
And, of course there was the usual rich tapestry of sound to be heard.
There were several ways the protestors used to get their message across. This was one way …
I find the subtle changes in the rythymn and repetition of the words in this sound clip fascinating.
And this is how the students did it …
Of course there is a another way … simply to explain what the message is but if that doesn’t work then add some more chanting..
Although the demonstrators took their protest very seriously there was also time for fun too …
The next manifestation about pension reform takes place on Tuesday 19th October.
I am not by nature a protestor. But I am delighted to live in a country that not only allows free protests in the streets but also a country that has turned protesting into an art form. In France the street protest or the “manifestation” is a way of life. The French do it all the time, they protest about anything and everything.
Saturday 2nd October – the axis between Place de Bastille and Place de la République … a solid wall of people marching, singing, chanting, shouting – protesting.
Paris has many beautiful sounds but it also has cold, raw sounds too, all of which make up the wonderful Paris Soundscape.
And what are all these people protesting about?
Pension reform of course. While some countries in Europe are contemplating raising the retirement age to 70, the French government is taking the modest step of raising the retirement age in France from 60 to 62 – and the people don’t like it.
This was a huge demonstration, so big that the route was split into two parts. One part left the Place de la République and marched down the Boulevard du Temple, the Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire and the Boulevard Beaumarchais to Bastille while the other part left République and marched along the Boulevard Voltaire and on to Nation.
I followed the part of the demonstration heading for Bastille. As always, the manifestation was loud with people determined to make their views known but it was also, for the most part, good natured.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the politics, I was only concerned with capturing the atmosphere of the manifestation but I was also fascinated by the tribal quality of the sounds, the chanting, the repetition of phrases, the leaders and the followers.
Listen to how one man by using rhythm and repetition whips the crowd to a near frenzy.
Street protests in France are often much misunderstood. What may seem to those who don’t live here as extreme political protests are in reality usually no more than ordinary people expressing their voice – a voice that is more often than not listened to by the Government.
Long may the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest continue.