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 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.