In Public War of the Worlds à la Française: On Protest Culture in France
France is famous for its commitment to authority and order, but every so often the top blows off the mountain and you’re left with a volcanic cauldron of revolution.
It was one of those springlike afternoons in Paris. I’d emerged from a restaurant in the sixth arrondissement and, since our daughter’s school wouldn’t release her for another hour, I had time to take in the surroundings. Voices spilled from the terrace café at the corner, and an old man tugged a terrier by his leash. Over at the bakery, four armor-clad riot police ( known locally as the CRS ) waited their turn to order pastries. A fifth one stood guard outside, holding all their shields and watching out for the brass.
Then I noticed they were not alone. The less peckish among them—forty or so—formed a bulwark a block away, where, I realized, a mob of protesters paraded along the cross street. Placards and banners bobbed against the background of shop signs.
As I strained to make out their chorus of chants, a volley of air horns cut through it all, triggering a symphony of police whistles. Then a bang sounded—the way you might ask your percussionist to wallop his kettle drum at a critical moment. A cloud unfurled upward in the sky. The air went peppery.
No doubt about it: I was a cobblestone’s throw from a mass demonstration—une manifestation, or more colloquially: une manif.
Despite the tumult, the cops at the bakery still dithered between éclairs and brownies. So, in my endless pursuit of knowledge, I approached the old man. He stood at the edge of the sidewalk as his terrier hunched in the gutter, scooting his hind feet forward as though trying to seat himself on an invisible stool.
“Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” I said while the demonstrators skirmished half a block away.
The man studied me, his eyes heavy with the wisdom of the ages. “Il chie,” he declared, stating it like one of those expressions for the weather: It is raining, it is snowing —and now, of all things, it is shitting .
It sounded like cultural commentary, but then I noticed the tawny pile in the gutter. Lightened of his terrible load, the dog now led his master down the street, both of them oblivious to the cries and the clouds of tear gas. As history teaches us, some people are freedom fighters and others are collaborators—but most just want to get on with the business of life.
Manifs—which sometimes turn violent— go with the territory around here . France is famous for its commitment to authority and order, but every so often the top blows off the mountain and you’re left with a volcanic cauldron of revolution. It’s tempting to imagine the country as composed of two groups—rabble-rousers facing off against disciplinarians—but things aren’t so simple. Both impulses infect each person, expressing themselves on alternate days. Your run-of-the-mill Parisian is the sort of monster Dr. Frankenstein might have contrived if his choice for body parts had been limited to Louis XIV and Robespierre—that is, the limbs of total domination and total revolution. Stitched together, they form a creature whose main activity consists of smacking himself.
If you had recently teleported to Paris from Mars—or, for that matter, from the US—such scenes of civil unrest would be cause for concern. WTF? you might say (or whatever the Martian equivalent is). It would appear to you that civilization had reached a point of no return, and that France might soon be up for grabs by neighboring countries (or planets).
However, hang around for a while, and you figure out this isn’t a scene of mass insanity. Mass protest is such a common form of misbehavior here that Parisians face demonstrations the way a Minnesotan greets blizzards: You grit your teeth and trudge through it. In Paris, there are often multiple blizzards at the same time (on a good day you might have eight or ten to choose from). So an industry of websites has emerged to keep us abreast of the social climate. A quick check tells where the day’s demonstrations are set to begin and at what time, how many trade unions will be on strike, which services will be shut down, and even—to make sure the processions don’t bump into each other on especially popular days—which routes the protesting mobs plan to follow.
No one knows how many demonstrators show up at these events . The nightly news provides a police tally, followed by the competing claims of the organizers. The police estimate is always surprisingly low, as if they have a hard time counting on their fingers because of those bulky gloves. However, the unions’ figures are only plausible if demonstrators are also nesting dolls, each one containing a set of progressively smaller picketers inside. The truth is, as we so often find these days, up for grabs.
Today’s procession was on the larger side, one of those million-person marches (maybe half that, if you counted like the police), and it had an unruly quality. Sometimes, the mood of a demonstration is described as ‘bon enfant’—easy-going, even slightly jolly, with the protesters having a bit of fun as they bring traffic to its knees. This group was less bubbly. The evening news presenters would almost certainly call it, in the French, ‘turbulent.’
Just now, another bang sounded, touching off a series of whoops. I couldn’t see through the mass of bodies, but somewhere glass shattered, and a car alarm went off. Was it possible they’d go the next step and start lighting vehicles on fire? The festive roasting of Renaults and Citroens reaches a peak in France on New Year’s Eve, but occasionally the locals engage in this pastime during the warmer months, too.
With Anne out of town, I was on pickup duty. Our daughter’s school wasn’t that far away, but many roads were now blocked, and several metro stations had wisely closed their doors. So, I availed myself of one of those public bicycles—a clunky Vélib with a skipping chain—and pedaled along side streets, weaving between the rock that was the riot police and the hard place of the throng.
Back in the US, we have our share of demonstrations, but they tend to be, for lack of a better term, wimpier. Americans might take to the streets for a day or two, but they can’t match the work ethic of those French men and women who, every morning, don their uniform of protest and trudge dutifully to the picket lines. The participation rates are staggering . Adjusting for population, a Parisian-scale protest would equal six million descending on Washington.
France is famous for its commitment to authority and order, but every so often the top blows off the mountain and you’re left with a volcanic cauldron of revolution.
Conversely, when I’m stateside, the resident protesters in my Midwestern town are three aging hippies who have dedicated their golden years to waving signs at motorists from the town square. Because they understand the effort it would take for people to park their car and join them, their placards aim for more modest participation. Honk for #MeToo , they read. Honk if Black Lives Matter . Honk to Stop Global Warming.
I wave back and—because I usually believe in their cause—I give a toot. It’s quite literally the least I could do, and a kind of glumness settles on me every time my horn peters into silence. When I get home, I’ll click to donate a few bucks, but the gesture feels cheap, even cowardly—the way, long ago, you could buy your way out of the army by paying someone to take your place .
In Paris, on the other hand, I have become civically engaged. My friends Guy and Sabine are hearty militants—the kind who, whenever a little free time presents itself, check out the available demonstrations the way one might browse through movie listings. When they find something that appeals, I will often tag along, marching in the streets to condemn the new education reform or the salary cuts, protesting the this or the that, helping to swell (to different degrees, of course) the official or unofficial count of protesters.
Some years ago, I purchased a T-shirt with a blood-red NON! printed across the chest. This proved to be a great all-purpose accessory for demonstrations of every flavor. For a while, I looked for a matching OUI! shirt, in order to be prepared for all circumstances. Turns out there’s no call for such a thing. People regularly protest against, but rarely for.
Often demonstrations are paired with strikes, another local specialty. Americans used to walk off the job , too, but after the ’70s, interest flagged. A daylong strike is headline news in the US, whereas here it’s business as usual. In Western Europe, the French are the undisputed champs of not getting anything done in this way, beating the Germans fourteen fold.
Another website tracks work stoppages (at least when the web technicians themselves aren’t on strike), which tend to be vast and tectonic. Shutdowns screech whole sectors of the economy to a standstill, and sometimes we are treated to fine spectacles—things like truckloads of hay being dumped on the Champs-Elysées , or yellow-vested protesters lighting bonfires on some of the quaint boulevards .
It’s like those scenes from science fiction movies, the ones where great cities are reduced to fire and rubble by the Z-rays and finger-bolts of the Martian invaders. Only in this case, the extraterrestrials could just lean back and watch the Earthlings do all the work themselves, cracking open a few beers and laying wagers on the outcome.
Huffing along side streets on my bike, I popped out now and then to see if the crowd had thinned. But no, it was even larger now. At the intersection with the Boulevard Saint-Michel, the police had amassed a fleet of vans and paddy wagons, where officers channeled protesters along an allowed itinerary.
The air was now hazy with tear gas and smoke. I rolled to a stop in front of an officer sitting on the bumper of his vehicle. He was hunched over, staring at his boots. When I asked where I might cross the churning river of people, he looked up to reveal a patch of gauze taped over his eye. Evidently people had started throwing things. The poor cyclops waved me wordlessly toward the east.
In the old days, cobblestones were the tool of choice for protesters. They made for effective projectiles. Moreover, you could heap them into barricades against the royalists, the national guard, or whoever happened to be the enemy du jour. Then, a hundred and fifty years ago, folks cut wide boulevards through the city , making the barricades harder to build. These days people mostly hurl chunks of blacktop. It may not have the historic brio of cobblestones, but it’s easier to chip up.
The crowd marched with flags and banners, and some demonstrators served as anchors for helium balloons bearing union logos. One young man wearing a red vest and wrap-around sunglasses brandished a burning traffic flare in a Statue-of-Liberty sort of pose.
In peaceful times, Parisians tend to walk in a straight-backed and self-contained manner, as if someone had pressed the barrel of a revolver to their back and ordered them to move forward without any funny business. During manifs, however, this corporeal discipline dissolves. Protesters lumber. They develop swagger. Suddenly the whole street belongs to them, and they try to fill it. In short, they start walking like Americans.
At this point I’d cycled northeast in search of clear passage, skirting the Latin Quarter. In this area, tourists lounged at terrace cafés and calm reigned supreme. Sightseeing is a multi-billion-dollar industry here, so the government shoos protesters away from popular locations. The official tourism website never speaks of “demonstrations.” It refers to events like this as “public disturbances”—making them sound like block parties that have turned a bit exuberant, rather than a great collective retching.
In the US, shopkeepers would tack plywood over their storefronts on a day like this. Survivalists would oil up their assault rifles. There’d be a run on batteries and toilet paper. But in Paris, people shrug. Even though Armageddon was going down a couple blocks away, the greatest nuisance here was trying to catch you waiter’s eye so you could order another round.
What, I wondered, would a Martian visitor make of this situation? Probably it would leave him scratching both his heads.
I checked my watch. By this point, I’d cycled nearly to the river. The broad avenue was still clogged with protesters. I’d been expecting things to thin out, the way a serpent narrows after the bulge of a swallowed rat. But there was no bulge—or rather, there was nothing but bulge, as if the snake had actually swallowed its own tail, forming an endless loop of protesters. The TV news anchors would announce the size of the demonstration as ‘infinite.’ The unions would giggle with glee.
Protesters lumber. They develop swagger. Suddenly the whole street belongs to them, and they try to fill it. In short, they start walking like Americans.
There were more bangs and clouds of smoke. Overhead came the thup-thup-thup of a helicopter, the sign that things were getting out of hand. A little squadron of riot police trotted past me bearing stub-barreled guns. We were now reaching the Flash-Ball stage—those rubber bullet weapons designed to keep the mob at bay. They looked like stormtroopers. Pretty soon I’d have Darth Vader bearing down on me, breathing like he needed a throat lozenge.
I was now in the neighborhood where my friend Cécile lived, so I pulled out my phone and gave her a ring. She was still at work.
“Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” she said.
I thought of the answer the dog owner had given me an hour ago. Il chie , I wanted to say. It’s shitting out. But instead I took a picture with my phone and sent it. It showed fifty riot police standing in rank, plastic shields raised, as if ready to charge.
“Merde,” she commented. “I have to pick up Matthieu and Maryse from school. How am I supposed to get there?”
Everyone had the same problem. Down one of the calmer streets, an elementary school had already opened its doors, releasing a herd of children. Eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds gawked at the bedlam before them. A girl in a pleated blue skirt held her father’s hand while studying the commotion with a knit brow, her lips pursed with disapproval.
What, I had to wonder, would she learn from this scene?
French children of this age are the opposite of revolution. They learn discipline: Starting in first grade they practice sitting straight for long stretches. They learn moral tales by heart—edifying rhymes about how much better it is to be a workaday ant than a tuneful cicada , or how crows will drop their camembert if they talk with their mouth full. All is order. Then these kids enter the cocoon of middle school and emerge as revolutionaries, eager to take down the man and earn their freedom.
Duty called. I pushed off from the curb and pedaled onward, hoping to loop past the great serpent of protest. If necessary, I’d go as far as the Place de la Bastille—which is, after all, where the ancestors of these protesters cut their eye-teeth in 1789 .
The helicopter thup-thupped more distantly now, and the air-horn blasts were muffled. The road tipped downhill and I wheeled past a block of tall buildings, veering onto an empty boulevard. Yellow garlands of police ribbon still stretched across the side streets, and a haze of smoke hung in the air. Beyond the curve to the west, chanting voices dwindled. Cans and bottles clogged the gutters. Trade union flags lay abandoned.
The snake of the mob had finally passed, leaving nothing but droppings. It had shat.
Then came a rumble from the far end of the street, and the ground began to shudder. Veiled by wisps of smoke, a tall vehicle appeared, followed by another. Hydraulics whined, and a little green man walked out of the haze. He wielded a wand with a tube unspooling from its hilt like the hose of a flame-thrower or, perhaps, a plasma-ray. A second green figure joined him, similarly armed. And then a third.
This was how I’d imagined it going down—otherworldly creatures emerging from their craft, ready to mop up the remains of the human race. They’d bided their time, but now the extraterrestrials were making their move.
Clouds of white billowed from their weapons. Leaflets and bottles jumped forward along their path. And voices rang out, heavily accented—though not with that trademark Martian twang. Turned out, these were aliens of a different sort: immigrants, men charged with the job of cleaning up behind an outraged citizenry, and whose own children attended school somewhere in the capital, learning the art of civil disobedience.
Which reminded me of my daughter. By now, she’d have been released into the brutal classroom of life.
Right on cue, a text from her arrived on my phone: a picture of riot police, shields raised, truncheons at the ready, a background of smoke and armored vehicles. It looked like an invasion.
How would she take it? I’d have all that comforting to do, once we got home. After wiping away her tears, I’d explain what I could about violence and unrest, about struggles for power. I’d make up soothing reassurances. With a fatherly shoulder-scrunch, I’d buck my daughter up, and after a bowl of chicken soup, I’d tuck—
The phone buzzed again. Her caption came in a single word: “AWESOME.”
I sighed. It was worse than I’d imagined: Our little girl was turning French.