DURING MY TIME living in Paris I have witnessed and recorded countless street demonstrations, or manifestations as we call them here. Whether it’s the spectacle of one million people filling the streets in 2010 to oppose the then Président Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms or a mere handful of people protesting about the implementation of some obscure local byelaw, people here are not shy when it comes to taking to the streets to make their voices heard. Whatever the issue under protest, and whether I agree with it or not, I find the politics of the street endlessly fascinating.
Yesterday afternoon I was in the Beaubourg area of Paris, the area around the Centre Pompidou, recording street musicians. Having made several recordings, I headed off to a café for much needed refreshment and a sit down, but on the way I came upon a manifestation progressing along rue Beaubourg.
I discovered that this was an animal rights protest under the ‘Marche Pour la Fermature des Abattoirs’ banner, a march aimed at closing down abattoirs. I also discovered that this march was not confined to Paris; similar marches are taking place across the world this weekend.
Marche Pour la Fermature des Abattoirs:
As you can hear, the protestors’ vocal theme centred on the chant, ‘Fermons les Abattoirs’, close the abattoirs, a theme supported by leaflets with the message:
It’s time to claim loud and clear the abolition of slavery of all the animals, the abolition of the practices which cause them the biggest wrongs: their breeding, their fishing and their slaughter.
Every year in the world, 60 billion land animals and more than 1000 billion aquatic animals are killed without necessity, which means that 164 million land animals and more than 2,74 billion aquatic animals are killed every day.
This was a large, well-organised, enthusiastic and peaceful march with a wide cross-section of people taking to the street to express their point of view. Which brings me back to what I said at the beginning: whatever the protest, I find the politics of the street endlessly fascinating.
LED BY STUDENT GROUPS and labour unions, thousands of people gathered in Place de la République in Paris on Saturday afternoon to step up their campaign against the government’s controversial labour reform bill. This was the latest in a series of strikes and protests against the bill and further protests are expected at the end of April.
The architect of the labour reform bill is Myriam El Khomri, the Minister of Labour, and so the bill has adopted her name, becoming the Loi El Khomri. She says the reforms will encourage businesses to hire more workers by deregulating many aspects of France’s notoriously rigid labour laws.
In 2012, François Hollande was elected French President on a pledge to curb unemployment and make ‘youth’ his priority, yet unemployment in France remains stubbornly high at around 10% and unemployment for the under-25s has crept up to an alarming 26%.
Hollande, currently the most unpopular president in France’s recent history, has said that he will not run again for the presidency in 2017 if he cannot cut the country’s high unemployment figures and he hopes the labour reforms will encourage firms to hire more staff.
However, pressure from the street and from parliament has caused the government to water down the proposals so that they apply only to large firms.
Parliament is set to vote on the reforms in late April or early May.
I went Place de la République on Saturday afternoon to mingle with the demonstrators and to record the sounds of protest.
Sounds of the manifestation contre la Loi El Khomri:
There was an almost festive atmosphere to the manifestation tarnished only by some masked youths who clashed briefly with police near Place de la Bastille.
Trouble at large street demonstrations in Paris is unusual and I believe one reason for that is the power of sound. Sound is an integral part of the demonstration; the chanting, with its subtle use of rhythm and repetition, creates a sound architecture that allows the people to speak and to be heard but it also imposes a discipline on the crowd as well as retaining their interest and enthusiasm.
It seems to me that 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.
If you want to know more about the labour reform bill, this is the complete texte du projet de loi El Khomri.
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.
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.
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 was out sound hunting yesterday around Les Halles at Châtelet.
No sooner had I got there than a manifestation hove into view.
It was a manifestation to mark La Journée Mondiale des Sourds, literally – World Day of the Deaf. More particularly, it was to promote the use of sign language in everyday life. The irony didn’t escape me. Here was I trying recording an almost completely silent manifestation. As with most manifestations in Paris it was all very good natured and everyone was enjoying themselves but there was none of the usual chanting, shouting and singing. What the participants lacked in making sound they more than made up for in the use of signing which was very enthusiastic..
The manifestation was not completely devoid of sound though. These guys were having fun beating their drum.
And all this was taking place in the shadow of the magnificent Eglise Saint Eustache.
Demonstrations, or “manifestations” as the French call them, are a way of life in France and particularly in Paris so if you live here you just have to get used to them. When I first came here eleven years ago I found this ‘leap to the streets’ at every opportunity quite mystifying. As time has moved on I have not only got used to it but I have come to respect the right of the demonstrators to protest and to enjoy the enthusiasm with which the do it.
Here in Paris manifestations seem to happen all the time except of course in the summer when even the most ardent demonstrators, along with everyone else, go on holiday. But come September and ‘La Rentrée’, that peculiar time of the year when everyone returns from holiday and life slowly gets back to normal, they will be back on the streets advancing whatever cause it is they support or are opposed to. And the causes are many and varied. I have seen demonstrations varying from opposition to pension reform to anti-globalisation to gay rights, to the regularisation of the ‘sans-papiers’ to more parking spaces for motorcycles and all points in between. It seems that nothing is too great or too small to take to the streets about.
At this point I should admit that I am not a natural demonstrator. I enjoy watching the demonstrations and I enjoy recording them but I am not a natural participant. I did though take part in one demonstration. It wasn’t planned, it happened by accident. I happened to be in the Place de la République one Saturday afternoon when I spied a demonstration approaching. It was a protest against ‘la peine de mort’ the death penalty, something I feel particularly strongly about and before I knew it I was joining in. It was the first and only time I’ve done it but I’m pleased I did.
Most of the demonstrations in Paris are peaceful if often enthusiastic. It is only on very rare occasions that any violence occurs and then only by a tiny minority. On the whole things are mostly good-natured. And just for once, a word in support of the police. At any demonstration in Paris the CRS (the French riot police) are present in force but, in my experience, they always seem to keep a discreet distance and never become visible unless things get hopelessly out of control which happens only very rarely. In all the time I have been watching demonstrations here I have never once seen the police be provocative in any way.
Love them or loathe them, manifestations happen here. People take to the streets to express their support for, or opposition against, a wide variety of causes. For the most part they do it peacefully, enthusiastically and with good humour. Long may it continue.