In November, police violently evicted a camp of migrants set up at Place de la République in Paris. We saw this through images online, which were the only way in which we could have witnessed such a thing; we were in lockdown and not in Paris. The following week, a black music producer called Michel Zecler, leaving his house, was set upon by several plain clothes policemen, who he didn’t realise were police. They immediately called him “sale negre” before pushing him back into his own recording studio, breaking one of his windows with a smoke grenade, and giving him a serious beating for 6 minutes. Apparently this onslaught was because he was not wearing a mask. All of this was caught on CCTV.
The videos of Michel Zecler provoked shock and sympathy, they went viral. The minister of the interior, Gerald Darmanin, a former member of the Republican party, who is against gay marriage and has been accused of rape, tried to rehabilitate such responses to the videos, absolutely condemning the violence on the part of the police, yet saying these police were “a few bad apples”. The circulation of images of a murder or attack, and its capacity to “go viral”, may also make it seem like what had happened to Michel, which is unfortunately an example of many repeated and systematic incidents, was paradoxically, exceptional. As the Financial Times wrote on the 26 of November, “The filming which prompted [Darmanin’s] response took place hours before parliamentarians were due to vote on a law that could make it harder to expose such images of police brutality”. The law is called the Loi Sécurité Globale, and it was drafted by Darmanin himself.
Darmanin has in fact been writing two laws at the same time. The Loi Sécurité Globale was proposed on the 20th of October, and received in the Assembly on the 24th of the same month. The other, which is technically called Law 3649 “strengthening respect for republican values”, Darmanin gives the pet name “the law on separatism”, since it gives the state tools for suppressing groups it considered “separate” to its aggressive secularism: people in cults, people in communes, Muslims, the far Left.
As for the first, “global security” seems to be a relatively new term in French, linked to Fukuyama’s idea of “International Security”, and the American counter-insurgent fantasy of an enemy within, now that the outside enemy has collapsed.1 Twenty years ago, the word “security” was nowhere to be found in the title of any French law. In the proposal for the Global Security Law, one may also notice the apparition of other new expressions like “continuum de sécurité” [security continuum] or “sous-traitance de la sécurité” [outsourcing of security], which borrow a vocabulary from economics and management theory. This “outsourcing of security” raises questions about the state monopoly of police power.
Article 24 was the most controversial, and was officially thrown out of the global security law on the 6th of December, after two riots and much criticism from the public. However, the content of Article 24 has since nestled into the “Separatism” law. It would have made it a criminal offence to “publish, by any medium, the face or any other identifying feature” of a police officer, “with the aim of causing them physical or psychological harm”. This is an interesting problem in and of itself because we might wonder who decides what the “aim” of publishing an image might be (extremely spurious), whereas the only thing that might be tangible might be the “effect” of such an image. The law is ridiculous in that it focuses on the “trauma” inflicted on the person capable of state sanctioned violence. The idea of several articles in the law is to slowly elevate the police above the status of citizens. Soon, any attack on police will be qualified as terrorist2.
It’s very alarming to notice that the law doesn’t prohibit the use of private third parties to process the images collected by the police. Before, you would be warned when you were being filmed, but it’s even written: “the public won’t be warned if the circumstances don’t allow for warnings”. Drones are already used to collect information on crowds in France, and in the context of the new law, their use has been questioned and criticised by the public and by government ministers. The law, worryingly, doesn’t prohibit the coupling of images captured with facial recognition devices. The law must be studied in relation to the “Livre blanc de la Sécurité Intérieure”, an entire White Paper on Interior Security delivered on the 16 November 2020, which probably not many people will read. Part of the white paper is oriented towards the artificial intelligence industry; the idea is that the law will open markets for French Tech.
Article 25 gives you 5 years in prison for doxxing someone — for diffusing information in a “ill-intentioned way”, information relative to someone’s private life — but only if they’re a person of public authority (a police person). As aforementioned, article 24 of this law has now formally been withdrawn due to popular protest, but has simply taken up lodgings in article 18 of the separatism law: article 18 of that law pledges to clamp down on “online hate crime” against police officers, which represents much the same thing and also implicates the diffusion of images of police.
Darmanin said that journalists would have to consult authorities before publishing images. Further to this, the white paper mentioned above attempts to recuperate the demands of anti-racist groups and protesters, and use them to the state’s advantage. For transparency, it says, all policemen will wear a bodycam. Drones, on-board cameras and bodycams will be used to “inform” the public, countering the “copwatching activities”, and the “struggle with equal weapons on social networks”. Equal weapons meaning, publicly sourced and publicly diffused images, outside of law courts. All footage used in court will come from bodycams.
In making a leap towards accountability and transparency, the government will also decide which images. How many times has it happened that bodycams are lost, malfunction, or that their footage is “accidentally deleted”? This permits them to, with one hand, physically throw journalists out of demonstrations, on to the margins, and with the other, wave around a technologically produced and “impersonal image” as if the image itself could tell the truth, irrespective of who was holding it3. This part of the law, article 25, was the most debated, the first discussion I saw of it was a kind of theoretical rumination on images of a privileged milieu working in the cinema industry who wrote an open letter in Libération on the 11th November 2020, called “Police everywhere, Images nowhere” (a play on the slogan, police everywhere, justice nowhere). It was also the part of the law that received the most media attention, because it attacks journalists and those who are able to be very vocal about it.
On November 28th, I find myself in the first of a series of explosive protests against this new law. In the centre of the Place de la Bastille, where I am standing with two friends amidst a huge crowd, watching several cars burning calmly, a blue sky, the usual things, there is a tall chlorine green column. The “July Column” is topped by a gold statue called The genius of liberty. It was constructed with the bricks of the Bastille prison, which was dismantled in the French revolution of July 14th 1789. This statue is behind corrugated hoarding, on which has been written:
ABOLITION DE LA POLICE ET DE DARMANIN
I am surprised by two things, on the one hand the crowd has been entirely eclipsed from my experience since March 2020. I had been “in confinement” which is not a euphemism for being sent away to hide a pregnancy or anything, it refers to the way we have lived, in four to six week bursts since March 2020. During “confinement” one has to remain confined to the house, fill out lengthy forms to go outside. The administration of just being able to walk around outside has become completely unbearable. Some reasons accepted for going outside were: personal exercise including a walk, alone, for up to an hour a day, up to a radius of 1km from your home; shopping (unlimited distance/time frame); going to work; coming back from work. So I had been “confined” to a house in the countryside with three people for a month, and came back the morning of the protest. I must explain to you how palpably shocking it was to see such a number of people at République. The protest wasnt moving, so we thought it was blocked by cops. But actually it was so dense that it was blocked by its own numbers.
I am also surprised by the sign, the word “abolition” seemed to me to be “borrowed” from the American uprisings, a mark of progressive translation that moves back and forth. There are plenty of borrowed slogans, that move like images breaking their own limits, for example: “Be water” taken from Bruce Lee via Hong Kong 2019, washed around the beginning of the transport strike in December and January of last year; Soyons ingouvernable fluttered over from France to the USA, emblazoned on various banners as “Make ourselves ungovernable”; there’s plenty of BLM tags here, plenty of George Floyd banners there; I’ve seen pictures of Tout le Monde Déteste la Police on walls in Minnesota, and so on and so on. These aren’t borrowings, as such, these are tributes and also ways in which stories are told, images are spread and circulate, the ways in which people learn from each other.
A friend asks: “are these protests really about the law or is it more of a Covid measures thing or more of a wider BLM thing”. I feel that it could be all three at once, but I also realise I myself am confused, that I’m not even sure when this law appeared or why or how. It seems to me it has “come out of nowhere”, which I realise is a phrase I often use to start my writing, which really seems to indicate that I haven’t been paying attention.
permanent state of emergency
plus another state of emergency
police power vacuum
global consciousness linked to BLM
“confinement”: an underestimation by the government of how much people want to be outdoors
We may consider this law as a response to a string of strong but failed social movements, and increasingly strong governmental and police strategy. I start in the middle: The gilets jaunes was a movement that filmed itself, and filmed police violence. This is in contrast to the groups who encountered police violence before the gilets jaunes movement. Let’s put it glibly,those receiving the brunt of police violence generally and in the period I will outline (2015 - present) were: people of colour, especially those living in the suburbs; newly arrived migrants, who, on top of the state violences encountered in dangerous journeys across oceans, detention centres, and state asylum seeking procedures, and of course deportations, poor housing conditions and generally hypocritical state practises around asylum, were very violently evicted from Calais and from other street camps in Paris in the winter of 2016.These camps were not, in their most important function, housing solutions. They were strategically important hubs,which self-organised migrants used as a way of coordinating with each other, and to render themselves visible and use thisvisibility to pressure the state, who preferred to hide them in substandard housing conditions, and interminable and cruelbureaucratic loops4. Finally, “the far Left”, (which is an insufficient label, as many of them would not like to be identified with anything like the Left). Due to terrible experiences with state surveillance, there is more often an extreme Left tendency not to wish to be filmed5. In 2015, it’s important to say that the “state of emergency” introduced after the Bataclan terrorist attacks resulted in the amplified terrorising of specifically Muslim communities, through arbitrary arrests, house arrests and house raids6.
There are moments in which this violence has become visible to what could be called “wider public”, which doesn’t really mean wider, just more visible to mainstream French public. In the recent period that I have chosen to look at (2015-2021), we may notice that the death at the hands of police of Adama Traoré in 2016, the rape by police baton of Théo in 2017, the assassination of Babakar in Nantes in 2018, and now, the violent beating up of Michel Zecler in 2021, are all examples of all-too-common and everyday violence done by the police, which through political organising and uprising have appeared and been made visible. The media have therefore rendered thevisibility of these cases proof of their exceptionalism.
Along come the gilets jaunes, and it’s a different “demographic” than the groups mentioned above. The gilets jaunes (GJ) crowd, at the beginning at least, is remarkable in that it doesn’t show the signs of having routinely been subjected to state violence and state surveillance. It films itself, openly, incriminates itself, is not apologetic about its tactics, it is not “anti-police”, and therefore believes in a citizen-like transparency of the deed. Their protests are violently repressed, they suffer police violence as “activists” and “racialised” groups have already experienced, but it is true also, that in the face of their gloriously original and spontaneous tactics, the police develop their tactics as well. Lycéens adjacent to the movement have a rowdy picket line, and they are made to kneel on the floor with their hands at their head at gunpoint over several hours. A veritably colonial punishment, enacted on the descendants of places once colonised by France. In the context of the wider GJ movement, the images go viral, attracting the shock of innumerable hand wringing parents from across France. The GJ meanwhile, go on to lose hands, eyes, fingers, forearms, jawbones to the mirror array of new flashballs and gimmicks given out to an increasingly decentralised police force.7
As a friend remarked, a friend who I quote often in my essays, “There's something faintly Hegelian about this turn of events: the struggle that gives rise to the image that gives rise to the struggle over the image. This seems true to me even if the power to produce images seems like a diminished terrain of conflict, or to suggest a limit: the movement fighting to be able to make an image of itself: a feedback loop, “a game of images”.” We are at a funny point in the dialectic of images, as I tried to say in the beginning of the essay, we’ve moved from groups of people being subjected to police violence who are suspicious of the image, through a full transparency in the form of the gilets jaunes, who in total belief in the deed and in their capacity to represent themselves, can film themselves, and hope for truth. The gilet jaune hates the mainstream media, and hates the 24 hour a day, rolling live news channel BFMTV, through experience they do not trust them. BFMTV cameras get thrown out of demonstrations because GJ (rightly) know their images will not tell the truth. People lose many eyes. A dialectic of eyes and images, but rather than the image itself being attacked, a general consciousness springs up about the manipulation of images. Ideas and images (filmed images) become amplified on an international scale once they step outside or are translated outside of their usual milieu.There are limits to that amplification, and that amplification might come back to slap the milieu in the face. One struggle may borrow or translate from another in order to amplify its own struggle.
When I first arrived in France there was a poster on the wall of the sublet that said Tout le monde déteste la police. I wondered after piecing it together in my poor French whether it really was the case that everyone did. In fact at that time it wasn’t true: many people fully adhered to the police in reaction to the Charlie Hedbo terrorist attacks. The police had carte blanche after the November 2011 terrorist attacks. The social movement against Hollande’s work law started, an article published in May 2016 —“Should one chant Everyone hates the police, or Cops, with us?” — attested to the slogan’s growing popularity. By the end of the social movement tags on a wall said A few more people hate the police, which was perhaps the most accurate of all.
In reaction to their own repression of demonstrations which had led to an articulated hatred of the police, the police began to organise themselves, which was previously unheard of (and besides is supposed to be illegal). First, police demonstrated for increased use of firearms and weapons, branding their job “dangerous”, despite increased powers authorised under the state of emergency. Then they organised a whole day “against the hatred of the police”, which is of course just another way of masking the violence inflicted by police on counter protesters. This demonstration inspired a counter demonstration of a mixture of Paris Antifa and lycéens organised under the broad banner of the MILI which culminated in the burning of a police car on the Quai de Valmy. This was highly mediatised and marked the end of popularity of the work law movement and eight people were put on trial in an extremely spurious manner, some of them convicted with extremely flimsy evidence, including the perceived colour of the boxer shorts of one of the accused in several videos.
The elections happened in June 2017. Although Macron won, this was mainly out of fear of Le Pen. Overall, 43.6% of the registered electorate voted for Macron; in 2002, by contrast, two-thirds of eligible voters voted against then-FN candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. Many left-wing voters were sceptical of what Macron’s corporatist and neoliberal policies would bring about, even in contrast to the explicitly fascist politics of Le Pen. The Left had years of betrayal behind it. The socialist party was a joke, the communist party was a dinosaur, and La France Insoumise was a party with an appropriately chauvinistic name led by Mélenchon, a hack who tends to use political parties in order to advance his own career and then dismantles them when they gain too much power. So Macron gets voted in by a weak voter base, some of whom are simply against Le Pen, some of whom think he’s some kind of post-political “something new”, some who think he’s “really handsome”, or “quite handsome”.
Macron, once elected, begins the most aggressive machete course of austerity against welfare, pensions (2020), railway worker employment packages (2018, 2019), evicting the ZAD (2018). In return he gets social movements, student movements, organised environmental activism and then the gilets jaunes. All of these more or less fail. New styles of policing are formed in reaction to the tactics learned through experience by the gilets jaunes. Most police are traditionally affiliated with the right, and many with the extreme right. I once heard that something like 90% of riot cops (CRS) vote Front National (now called RN, Rassemblement National). They use this democratic crisis cleverly, to gain extra rights and powers. Or you can put it another way, there needs to be further incentives to do such a nasty job
Since the Gilets Jaunes, and George Floyd uprisings, it’s certainly true that more people hate the police. The police have also gained certain powers, in short there’s a crisis of representation in France and Macron is pandering to the right wing.
Evidence of Macron pandering to the right recently, in general, beyond just the police, can be found all over. This autumn, the Financial Times coined him “Macron the panderer”, citing the way his “illiberal reforms” had led to international recognition of the fact that Macron now seems less centrist than international commentators originally thought. There’s also been a marked and explicit slide to the right, aside from his authoritarianism which has been a running theme. Jean Castex and Gérald Darmanin are two examples of former Républican party members who both worked for Sarkozy originally, and recently joined Macron’s cabinet.
The measures against coronavirus have been extremely authoritarian: in the first lockdown, people had to fill out a form in order to go outside, and otherwise were confined to their houses. The government had delayed lockdown measures to accommodate the local elections, something of course involving a lot of collective room sharing, queueing and collective surface touching. After the lockdown, new policies opened up spaces in May, clearly with a view to boosting the economy over the summer for the tourist period. Bars closed, meaning that restaurants swelled with once bar going crowds, then a curfew was set at 9pm in October, a second lockdown was implemented, and then switched to a 8pm curfew on the 15th of December, which within two weeks was shaved back to 6pm, once people had been allowed to circulate like crazy for the Christmas period, and share serving spoons, shopping areas and family gatherings. Everything that is a shop is open, whilst most other inside places are closed, the metro is heaving, and people continue to work. Being in the street after 6pm without a valid permit, you could get a 135 euro fine (1000 for the second offence, 6 months prison sentence for the third). It’s not as if these measures do nothing exactly, they are probably one efficient way to minimise death, by imposing forms of social control. But they also appear to be irrational and it’s true that it seems mad, such strict measures alongside heaving metros, open workplaces. It’s probably just galling. The measures also tend to scapegoat, for example, nighttime activities, hinting that parties are spreading the virus, whereas it’s clear that the virus spreads more in care homes, workplaces, the metro.
Macron has a weak stance on the vaccine, which has allowed anti-vaxxer tendencies to proliferate. In a week early in January when Germany had already vaccinated something like 2 million people, and the murderous Island of Britain too, something like only 300 French people had been vaccinated. Bewildered reports were published in various newspapers. French people are considered to love vaccination, it is a national treasure because of Louis Pasteur. What does this move mean from Macron; perhaps he’s concerned about losing anti vaxxers, or part of the volatile gilets jaunes base who might migrate over to the RN?
In the months of July and August we saw a scepticism of Covid measures unfolding in a decidedly republican vain. Posters said: La République c’est le visage découvert, (“the republic is the unveiled face”) echoing French secularism and intolerance for the hijab.
A strong affirmation of “Republican values” was made in reaction to the murder of Samuel Paty, a school teacher near Paris who was beheaded by a 19 year old Chechen man on Friday, October 16th 2020, not one of his students, after having shown cartoons of the Prophet from Charlie Hebdo in class8. His classes had generated some controversy in that he was understood to have told Muslim students they could leave the room or avert their eyes were they offended. A social media campaign was linked to Paty’s subsequent murder and ten people were later charged with assisting the assailant, including two students at the school and a parent who had been behind the social media campaign.
On Thursday, October 29th, there was an islamist terrorist attack at the basilica de Notre Dame in Nice in which three people were killed. In Avignon, two hours later on the same day, a neo nazi, Fabien Badaroux, armed with a 6.35mm pistol, threatened an Arab-French driver, saying all the while amidst racist insults, that he was part of the extreme-right group Generation Identity. Badaroux was wearing a hoodie with “Defend Europe” written on it, and made a nazi salute. The man being threatened called the police, who attempted to encourage the man to drop his gun, and when he didn’t they shot the assailant dead. Second world war memorabilia was later found at his house. No one much talked about this because the fake news that it was an Islamist attack was immediately circulated, and press accounts chose to focus on Badaroux’s mental health, rather than his express affiliation with right wing movements, and the case was, further, not treated as a terrorist act.9
Macron responded in a way that nobody in France was surprised about and that everyone in the rest of the world seemed to be shocked by. His statements in favour of an aggressive laicité were parroted by ministers and played out in a flurry in televised debates over the following weeks.10 People demonstrated globally against his intolerance for Muslims. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, in an interview entitled “Homage to Samuel Paty, the fight against Islamism” in the Journal du Dimanche, evoked the word “Islamogauchisme”, a seemingly arbitrary porte-manteau which designates the state’s imagined threats, and evokes the melding together of the words “Judeo” and “Bolshevism” in former times. Along with this term he added the phrases “the ravages it would cause” and “in the University milieu” and “intellectual complicity with terrorism”. Only a few days later, an amendment was made to the LPPR (the privatising reform to university research which passed earlier this year) which stipulates that “university values must be exercised within the framework of republican values”11; a fairly vague proposition, which nonetheless suggests the exclusion of certain political or religious tendencies. To justify this amendment, they add “Academic freedoms which are no longer, in France, protected from obvious infringements”. Evoking various “cancelled” debates in universities, professors threatened, this is situated in the text particularly in the outpouring of emotion borne from the killing of Samuel Paty: “The terrible tragedy in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine [where Paty was beheaded] shows more than ever the need to preserve, within the Republic, the freedom to teach freely and to train the citizens of tomorrow”, the explanatory memorandum states. “The aim of this provision is to enshrine in law that these values, first and foremost secularism, are the foundation on which academic freedom is based and the framework in which it is expressed”. The addition appears at first to wish to protect freedom in teaching, finishing by circumscribing what the space of teaching must and must not contain.
Republican values: Laïcité, égalité, fraternité. As news of Darmanin’s new Global Security Law came out internationally, and in view of the affirmation of intolerance toward Muslims from Macron and his ministers, Macron was described as being “on a rightward tilt” in the New York Times12. Oh my gosh! said all the readers of the Guardian and the NYT, raising hands up to frame their faces, but we thought he was a Centrist, saving Europe! Macron, a bee in his bonnet, called up the NYT personally, and said he wanted them to change the image they were painting of him.
So now we’re two years on from when the gilets jaunes first came up to Paris, and here we are in demonstrations hearing a cast of different characters singing, in all seriousness: nous — on veut — on veut filmer la po- li-ce [“we want to film the police”], to the rhythm of the old chant tout le monde déteste la police. This seems to be the all-too-positive formulation of a limited political horizon, defined by what is being removed. Of course we don’t want to film the police, or fill our heads up with their horrible forms, we want not to have to film the police at all. But in the meantime of course, we don’t have a choice, we can’t let our only weapon - of bearing witness- disappear. We’ve seen the flakiness of images all summer, all year, and all years before. We know that images, even with a significant movement (whether it be riots, a social movement, families campaigning for conviction, movements with clear aims of police reform or justice) behind them, don’t tell the truth by themselves. We know that images don’t lead to conviction. Not even mass witnessing leads to conviction. Judges are judges. This year has seen the diffusion of bonafide, extra judicial images, raising consciousness of police violence.
So on November 28th I’m standing in the first protest against the Loi Sécurité Globale. It was one of those crisp, blue sky autumn days in Paris when all the fronts of Haussmanian boulevard blocks look like they’re made of ice cream and the light is copper imbued with neon pink. It was November, so no autumn leaves, I never understood why, but they start to fall from the plane trees in August when no one is there to observe them. But actually the protest wasn’t blocked, there were just so many people. Why? I think it’s a number of things: I think people were keen to be outside, having been “confined”, like winter hyacinths striving for light. I had also noticed a swell in different kinds of people at the rally called by Assa Traoré, which affiliated the Comité Adama with the George Floyd uprisings on June 2nd 2020. This was a huge gathering, filled with people, anxiously standing around in masks, freshly deconfined and not sure of how to socially distance within such a huge crowd. These were hip people, well dressed people, and a much more racially diverse crowd than that which usually composes the Left, or the trade union Left.
How to explain this beyond it being just a reaction to “confinement”: images of George Floyd’s murder had spread over the globe and made the year 2020 a year in which “everyone hated the police”. Assa Traoré’s, the sister of Adama Traoré who was murdered by police in 2016, feat of genius lay in seeing that the right in France wished to wring their hands over this image and attribute it to a nasty American state. But Assa managed, in affiliating her movement to the George Floyd uprisings, to bring that consciousness to France, to reflect an image of French police violence back out on an international level, so that it could no longer be ignored by a French public. Through an act of translation, the murder of Adama Traoré was reflected back through George Floyd’s murder so that France had to examine itself. This has a dual face: through cultural imperialism in America, Americans may imagine that French anti-racist struggles are “learning” from their own. Time magazine put Assa Traoré on its cover as one of their “guardians” of 2019.
It should not need to be said here that France has plenty of anti-racist struggle of its own, plenty of racism to reckon with. The names of the dead or mutilated would exceed the word count I have to stick to. The recent chapter perhaps starts with Zyed and Bouna, then Adama, Théo, Babacar, Gaye Camara, and those are only a few13.
The image of George Floyd had broken the edges of a milieu commonly habituated to such violence on an everyday level, it was an image that had broken its own limits. In itself it was not sufficient, but with the insistence of the social movement that followed, even the most hypocritical bourgeois could no longer ignore it. The image is limited, in that in its exemplary character as being one of many murders which “goes viral”, the bourgeois would like to say that it was just that one cop who was a psychopath, but the insistences of social movements will not let it slide.
It’s just that in this odd period since the social movement against the work law in 2016, there have been so many different permutations of crowds, rarely having the feeling of being a whole crowd — like there’s always that question of who a crowd is composed of, right? The gilets jaunes were supposed to be a crowd who came from “outside” (outside, elsewhere, not the Left, outside Paris); then there’s the impression that the “ultra-gauche” is even one thing in terms of a crowd, and if it is, it’s an outside agitator (casseur) or an Antifa. Judgements of who a crowd is may be based on visible signs — trade union banners, or clothing, which is made easier by the phenomena of the “one-size-fits-all” gilet jaune, or the black bloc, or they may be based on the behaviour or character of the crowd, what the crowd does. Most judgements on crowds — unless they are made by a crowd wanting to say something, wanting to wear something, or identify with something — are made externally.
The imposition of who the crowd is supposed to be against these sorts of limits is a way of saying “it wasn’t this”, “it was about that”. The result of the police repression of certain movements has made for new crowds that are much smaller and more homogenous than others, because parts of a biggercrowd slip away when it’s not a moment of great mass appeal. So you find parts of crowds made of segments of people just dressed in black with backpacks, and you find crowds just of gilets jaunes. The most likely time to see everyone in the same place in a big heterogenous crowd is at the beginning of something. Then parts of the crowd split off, disappear, people intervene. But smaller or homogenous crowds are interesting in their ferocity and otherness. Some crowds feel like folkloric repetitions of other crowds. They look like them, but they are nothing like them. So this crowd was definitely very different. The crowd on November 28th looked like a pastiche opera set of all of the movements of the last five years, all represented in bits and blocs.
On November 28th, I saw parts of a similar crowd as I’d seen on June 2nd (at the demonstration in solidarity with George Floyd, called by the Comité Adama) swelling the edges of the boulevard which runs from Place de la République to the Place de Bastille in conspicuous and beautiful goose down jackets. There are also all kinds of relics of previous movements, in perfect proportions: gilets jaunes, students. I didn’t particularly notice the presence of trade unions, except it’s true they were there. This size of the crowd was absolutely imperative for what happened next. The police were nowhere to be seen, I imagine that someone far off in an office somewhere had told them to hold back, given how unpopular they were that week, and so the demonstration was calm. Overhead, cutting through the sky we could see acrid black plumes of smoke, which we found out, trawling through the small gaps in between peoples” bodies, were coming from two burning cars, and a burning shipping container. The police couldn’t even have got into the crowd had they tried. People in black bloc, but unmasked, were calmly climbing scaffolding; I wondered at what they were doing, and then realised they were simply flexing their climbing muscles, joyously. As we reached the Place de Bastille we looked back to see light smoke travelling gently upward over an unlit neon sign
BUSINESS OWNERS WISH YOU A HAPPY FESTIVE SEASON
It reminded me that Macron had spoken on television saying that it was of absolute importance that they maintain BLACK FRIDAY, and I looked at the smoke and the swelling crowd and wondered at how anyone could live with the burden of abstract individual responsibility or take any of these state measures seriously anymore, no matter how dearly they wished to protect the victims of the same authoritarian state. There were charges, yes, from both sides, at Bastille, but they had little effect in dispersing the crowd, since it was so impressively big.
The demonstration of 28 November finishes violently. The sun goes down, the night is dark, no one is watching anymore, the hipsters have gone home, the churros kiosk is still open amidst lots of tear gas, the newspaper kiosk is on fire, motorbikes have been taken out of the motorbike shop and the windows are smashed and the motorbikes are burned, and they are being tidied away, carcasses of burned out cars are cooling down. We buy sugary churros and eat them with the taste of teargas in our mouths, as the surprising sight of journalists fighting police full frontal (a cop gets floored and dragged, unconscious). Near the protest people are eating oysters at bars and drinking beers: Paris is not “confined”, not that much.
A friend asks me “What’s with the protests, are they carrying on?”. They do carry on the next weekend, but they don’t go on into the week for days and nights on end as I have understood American riots did. They stop, there is no capacity for organising AGs and meetings that usually bolster social movements because we are still in “confinement”.
One must understand the fundamentally private and domestic character of Parisian riots. They are spectacular and extreme, but they almost never break the night. The glass is cleared away, they stop around the time that people need to go for dinner, or oysters, or drinks. Manifestations are, after all, always some kind of flânerie, a social event. They are often on Saturdays. They involve a long stroll on this or that boulevard, down to this or that place. You see some kind of old, earnest Left, people of such and such a generation. These people want to march, they want to exercise their right to march. When the march inevitably comes to a standstill at X, Y or Z place and is attacked by or attacks the police, these will be the people who revile and denounce their fellow demonstrators. They want the march to say what it says, in the way they want it to say.
The black bloc has come to mean anyone wearing black and wearing a mask, which is difficult because, due to the prevalence of tiny apartments among young Parisians, and hence them having very few, well chosen garments at their disposal, Parisians of all classes tend to wear black and besides, masks are obligatory. I see that Parisians are becoming attuned to wearing masks which now stand in, simply, for those huge scarves.
For a while this private character of riots was explicitly outsourced. Like, as in, the riots were “done” by people who were not really them (Parisians) — the gilets jaunes — they suited Parisians just as well since it was a kind of spectacle they could go and see. You can always see the gilets jaunes a mile away. Their clothes, their manners, their preoccupations; in fact, they themselves point it out.
I’m trying to write out the limit-case of riots in Paris. It is a question of late style, spectacle. I do think the writer Georges Perec understood this — if not about riots, about Paris — very well. All those extreme things happening, yet all divided into those little, segmented apartments14. These are my impressions of the last few weeks, the last five years. As long as it doesn’t break the night, to break into the next day, these events remain the domain of a minority, of the “autonome” left. It stays a game. What are called “suburban riots” exceed the break of night. Different things are at stake, people are fighting in the neighbourhoods they live in, whereas inside Paris it is never our own neighbourhoods and property is more valuable.
The next demonstration was also a Saturday. Unlike the first, which had been in the centre of Paris, so visible both to passersby and to the press, the second, December 5th, was sequestered away at Porte de Lilas. The question of images and witnessing came back to me: it is dangerous for this reason, out of sight of central Paris, like no one cared about us, that the police could do anything to us. It was also emptier, devoid of those people who I’d seen at the previous demonstration. Hating the police is generalised, but if those goosedown jacket people don’t show up it’s also very dangerous apparently. The police were visibly angry from their humiliating defeat of the week before, and kettled the crowd immediately. We were crushed into a small place in front of a nursing home where elderly ladies and their carers waved, and then had to close the windows because of the gas. What the police did was extremely dangerous. People were fainting, and trying to move in both directions through an entirely dense crowd. The demonstration is knocked back, charged, and then charges back. There are 12ft tall burning barricades and the police are on the backfoot. I’ve never seen smoke like this, a postal van is on fire, the sky is opaque black. I wonder about the consequences of letters that will never be sent, possible break-ups that might result. The crowd, over five hours, gradually gets pushed back to where it started. But given that they marched for about five minutes and then took five hours to be pushed back, I think the police have lost. It’s a street battle that rages for hours, until the police find themselves alone in the middle of a crossroads. It’s much more violent than the preceding week, much more spectacular. And invisible. Up at Porte de Lilas, a tag on the wall reads
BLACK BLOC FRIDAY
And a riot is going up and down the street. People are spilling into the anonymity of the gardens of a housing estate.
We decide to walk across town. I thought of Benjamin’s “Destructive Character” essay. I thought of this walking down the Avenue Gambetta seeing car, car, car, car, burned out car. There’s a terrible amount of clearing away to be done — clearing away of lies, of BFMTV descriptions of images — before one can get down to writing. And a lot of clearing away of general anxieties which are really overflowing at the moment. We get to the real place of the Place de la République which is full of protesters jumping up and down chanting tout le monde déteste la police. Someone loses their hand to a grenade, gas is thrown, this person is rushed out through the police line in need of urgent care. We manage to get in and out of the kettled place through an intricate game of exits and platforms on the metro, which is full of tear gas. We eat a kebab. Through the window, at a stone’s throw from République, I watch the news telling lies with the same images I have just seen on the square.
The police win the image-game. The narrative after the protest is that the police are in fear of their lives doing their jobs, despite the fact that it is a protester who has lost his hand, and that the images are the same images. The images don’t lie but they are in the hands of liars. I am reminded of the Angry Brigade’s communiqué 9, which I think was attributed to Anna Mendelssohn (the poet, who later changes her name to Grace Lake): “Police computers cannot tell the truth. They just record our `crimes'. The pig murders go unrecorded.”15 Clause 24 nonetheless gets withdrawn on the 6th December, they want to replace it with another article which will “comfort” French republican values.
Right before the next protest, the 12th December, which is also arguably the last protest of this small wave, 7 “members of the ultra-left” are arrested. They are not charged, but it is enough to arrest them apparently. The police are trying to create a narrative of terrorism in order to undermine the demonstrations: the spectre of the outside agitator. In an open letter on Mediapart entitled “Répression d’etat, nous ne céderons ni au chantage, ni à la peur” [State repression, we won’t give in to blackmail or to fear]16 I read that under the State of Emergency, the subjective interpretation by a police officer becomes sovereign in justifying any initiative in foiling or repressing a threat. The demonstration is terrible. Another inquiry on Mediapart using Forensic Architecture-esque techniques, shows us the way in which the police have stifled the protest17. Amnesty also condemns the police for “arbitrary arrests and beatings”18. At night, we see terrifying scenes in which snatch squads run in and make random arrests and beatings, including one of a woman with a rainbow umbrella who they designate as the leader of the Black Bloc. Later, hours later, we come upon a crowd on a street corner, and out of nowhere, a cop van and the firemen swerve through, almost running over several people.
I imagine maybe I should write a one-line conclusion: The law is constructed in reaction to social movements because of the necessity of clearing the way for increasingly violent policing, which the police are agitating for themselves. The government’s grip on images, which will soon become a monopoly, appears to be a capitulation to a liberal demand for transparency: the state holds out a hand offering up a bodycam, whilst with the other it tears down the freely circulating images taken by bystanders and witnesses. It is absolutely necessary to struggle for images, but protesters should be cautious about their faith in or enthusiasm for those images. It was frankly alarming seeing people rejoicing over the exposed faces of fascists storming the capitol, given the implications for general surveillance. As history has it, images and technology are not on your side, they are on the side of bourgeois interest. Mass witnessing isn’t enough, though it’s necessary. I end with a poem, because I don’t know how to end:
And on Sundays
We will hang out, break rules
& do the now revolutionary work
of living an experience
honouring it and showing up for it
whether this be in writing
or means “something to be just
eating real food, smoking a real cigarette,
with some real people
in a real bar
refusing all deadlines
letting them melt like icecream
remaining vigilant we
learn to be water
with real time and the “epoch”
We are learning to be poets.
sharpening our knives and polishing
there is no here, here, anymore
“Poems are thought”
“walks are thought”
Cleaning the toilet at 4am is not thought
Poems are instruction
how also, to have written
Discipline: we are learning
discipline every day
Bench pressing, ju jitsu
training for our future study
Reading is writing
the outside is inside
the day is night
an email is now
money is yesterday
dispersed among the vague terminology
letters were written “out”
Now letters a last hope
as we flash on like small lights
a people in a place
a person in a small studio
between the legal hours.
The eventual gratification
and the promise —
to fuck, make love
with lonely satellites.
Stay frosty, be like water
flow, strip again, don’t get strung out
live life well
At any cost, be vigilant
it is all around you
be ready, above all, at any time
Dream practise is one way of staying close
becoming finely tuned to what you will wear
see, hear, carry with you
All letters written out
are now written inside
It is a set of notes.
These are the lines.
“I am no longer a member of my own life”
“We must exist more and heavier”
Why write the shattering glass,
cleared out the next day, the walls
the crowd in which the fear
the gas and
can it even
we don’t want to forget. What was the only real life
at the real
the smoke carrying over from one night
when all nights are collapsed
and all time is collapsed
and all space
and all writing
is the only thing not snitching
there is a limit to images.
and images cannot tell the truth
by themselves. they cannot even be
“But don’t mourn, organise”
Shit just got real
and these slogans were flimsy
train, mope, build your abs,
break promises, drop obligations,
eat protein for full automation
Stop, mediate, forget
don’t be thrown by commodities
or the inner cathedrals
of capacious shops
Survive. At all costs survive.
Ride it out, don’t get neurotic
be better, stronger, faster
at all times. don’t try to cross borders
unless sure of success
Survive, get soup, wash yourself
tend to the home
don’t get thrown
(Paris, December 2020-February 2021)
The author wishes to thank Léo Richard, Jess Saxby, Danny Hayward, and Jasper Bernes for their careful suggestions, encouragement and help editing.