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.
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:
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!