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.
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.