Testimonial from French protests

So as everyone who reads the news has probably heard, there has been a major “social movement” here the last few weeks, basically opposing the government’s reform of the pension system. There have been a number of street protests, major strikes of public transit and railroad workers, and fuel shortages because of industrial strikes. I’m not going to take the time to give links to these ongoing stories, because you can look it all up on google. (I recommend French-language coverage, if possible, and otherwise maybe the BBC. Americans seem to be prone to idiotic analyses like this one.)

To be honest, as an ethnographer, I haven’t been extremely curious about this whole political affair; it’s only peripherally about the universities, and I’m mainly interested in the politics of the university system. And I’m not the only one who feels separate from this movement: at a faculty activist meeting a week ago, teachers commented that their concerns about the institutional situation were radically different from their students’ involvements in the pension question, and they weren’t sure (at that point) what points of commonality with the students they were going to find.

University discussion of the movement has, nonetheless, been ongoing, and I was particularly interested in one sociology student’s testimonial from the barricades in Lyon. I’ve taken the time to translate it; there’s something important to learn, I think, from stories of what happens when privileged, educated people suddenly find themselves subject to irrational and overwhelming state violence.

Thursday, October 21, 2010. Testimony of events on Place Bellecour, Lyon.

I arrived around noon at Place Bellecour, accompanied by some student friends. A protest was supposed to start at 2pm, on Place A. Poncet just beside Place Bellecour, with college and high school students, partnered with the CGT [a major union] and SUD [a left autonomist union]. A number of young people were there, mostly high schoolers and middle schoolers. You crossed a police cordon to enter the square. There were several dozen of them at every exit from the public square, which is one of the largest in France. They were armored from head to foot, with helmets, shields, nightsticks, pistols… There was also a truck from the GIPN (National Police Intervention Group, who had an armored truck and wore masks) and two anti-riot water cannon trucks. A helicopter surveyed the site from a low altitude. Half an hour later, after a few stones were thrown towards the police and their vehicles, the cops went into action and fired tear gas grenades. The crowd dispersed.

Around 1:30pm we start moving towards the Post Office, where the protest was going to leave from. The police cordon was still there, separating the protesters already on Place Bellecour from those on Place A. Poncet. They refused to let us through. After half an hour of discussion, probably with the help of the unions, they opened the cordon and let about thirty people through, after which they abruptly closed the cordon again. Apparently, the population going through didn’t fit the criteria for a “good protester” (light skin, not too young, no sweatshirts or hoods). No one else was allowed to leave Bellecour. Tensions rose. A few projectiles were thrown, and the police responded by firing tear gas, nightsticks raised. For more than an hour, we tried in vain to rejoin the other group of protesters, who were waiting for us on the other side. They also got teargassed. The crowd on Bellecour was broken up.

At 3:30pm, finally, the “free” protesters decided to leave on the march. For our part, we waited. There were several hundred of us on the Place. It was relatively calm. We waited, splintered into little groups all across the square. The cops said that we could leave once the protest had left. We waited. The helicopter hovered over us with a deafening roar. There were a few movements in the crowd, but the scene stayed calm. Frankly, we were getting pissed off. I was just planning to go on the march, and I had brought nothing with me: no water, no food, nothing to do. I waited like the others. A little later we decided to leave with a friend. But the cops still refused to let us out. It was probably about 4:30pm, so they had been holding us for three hours. I told them I needed to eat and piss, but they said no way. I started to get seriously pissed off, and it dawned on me that I was being forcibly retained. The cops told us it was an order from the Prefect, and that they didn’t know when they would be authorized to let us leave. To a friend who asked if it would be possible to get a soccer ball from the outside, to have something to do, the cop says that he should just take the inflated bladder of the young girl who had just asked to leave to go to the toilet. Then he and his colleagues burst out laughing.

No one understood the situation. In spite of everything, the square emptied out somewhat. Some people managed to leave, helped by the residents and shop-keepers who opened up their back doors. I heard that the police had let some students leave, but that, on the other hand, the young maghrébins [North Africans] right beside them were kept back. Systematically guilty of not being white [Le délit de faciès est systématique]. On the square, we didn’t organize ourselves. Everyone stayed in their corner, we were bewildered, we just expected to be let out. The average age of the people detained wasn’t over 18.

It was around 5pm, and we heard that maybe we weren’t going to be let out before 9pm. People began to panic. I heard middle schoolers on the phone trying to explain to their parents that they couldn’t come home because the police were holding them. It got colder and colder. I went back to see the police for some explanations. One of them explained to me that “we’re lucky to be in France because if were in Spain we would already have been beaten up by the Civil Guard,” and that “when there are problems of public order, freedom of movement can be suspended.” The square, at this point and for more than an hour before, was perfectly calm. A little bit later, when some kids gathered to protest in the middle of the square, the cops we were talking to turned their weapons towards us (I don’t know if they were tear gas launchers or rubber bullets) and told us to get back. Which we did. Tear gas was fired all across the square: the grenades shot into the sky and scattered out, falling, in incandescent form. People ran in every direction. We tried to stay on the sidewalk, along the buildings, to protect ourselves as much as possible. A young man was on the ground. Others came to help him, and ten meters away the police still threatened them with their pistols. I heard that he was hurt, and kids, with their hands in the air, asked the cops not to attack. Eventually the cops made everyone get back. They came to get the young man, who resisted. Three of them held him down on the ground, and then they dragged by him by the arm for 20 meters to their truck, which he disappeared behind. In front of me was a 15-year-old girl, in tears, in the arms of her friend. They went to see the police, asked to leave, crying, said they couldn’t take any more, wanted to go home. The cop told them to get lost. Explosions kept ringing out, smoke covered the square. It was hard to open your eyes and to breathe. Thirty meters to my right a girl was stretched out on the ground. People gathered around to help her. I didn’t see her react, I don’t know what was happening to her. Maybe an asthma attack, maybe a rubber bullet shot? (In the end I don’t think they shot any rubber bullets.) People shouted to call the firemen. Eventually, after maybe ten minutes, the police pushed everyone back farther along.

The helicopter hovered, still, above our heads.

Seeing our incomprehension, a cop told us: “It’s a policing innovation.”

I walked. People began to assemble in the middle of the square. Everyone had had enough. We started to be afraid that we wouldn’t be able to get out. Shouts of protest. A few stones were thrown. They respond, again, with tear gas and deafening sounds of explosions. Eventually they decide to get out the anti-riot water cannons. They fire. People are dispersed. We wait. They come back once or twice with the water. We stay dispersed. We wander around. People walk. I’ve had too much. I start to break down. The sun has set. It’s cold. I haven’t eaten since morning. We started walking, more or less in groups.

Around 6pm, the cops tell us that we can leave from the north side. Everyone goes over there. They respond with tear gas. People shout, hands in the air: “They told us we could go out this way!” Repeat. Tear gas fired, dispersion. On the third try, they let us approach. They finally let us leave. They make people leave one by one, stating their name and address, doing body searches (“checkup [palpation?]” they called it), and emptied people’s bags. As there were more than 200 of us, this took a long time. We lined up in the queue, docilely, heads down. They brought all the prisoners to one end of the square. They told us that we would all get out, but only one drop at a time [au compte-goutte]. We waited. People without their identity papers were put to one side. Eventually they let us through. While she searches me she tells me that she’ll be quick. I’m disgusted [écoeurée]. It had been more than six hours since the police had gotten the order not to let anyone leave place Bellecour. Six hours that some 200 people (at a minimum) were deprived of basic freedoms: moving, eating, drinking, going to the toilet. Six hours that we were held on a public square, battered [sonnés], confused, encircled by more than a hundred police, pointing their weapons at us with the least movement in the crowd, and firing on us… and the helicopter that hovered permanently overhead. The cop who checked my friend’s ID told him, “at least, eh, you won’t want to come back [vous avez plus envie de recommencer].”

It’s disgusting.

Nerves fraying, a policeman saw that I was in tears and took it upon himself to bring us past the last line of cops that separated us from the outside. He led us through the middle of a group of thirty or so kids, all Africans or Maghrébins, who were getting on a bus. They weren’t more than 18 years old. I asked where they were going: to the police station, to have their identities checked. It was 6:45. The cops said they would let them go that evening. Two buses left for the Commissariat.

Once I was past the riot police [CRS] lines, I rejoined the free protesters, who came towards the Place Bellecour to support us after the protest. They invited us to eat, to regroup. The protesters tried to stop the bus from leaving. Undercover cops [la B.A.C.] intervened, and the buses left.

A very bad experience, this situation, yes. Shocked, yes. To conclude, I went to the first bar I saw, to go to the toilets. The owner refused, he told me he had just refused ten other people and that he wouldn’t make an exception for me. I piss in the street, watched by protesters and passers-by.

Humiliated, yes.

They took away my right to protest, they took away my right to move freely [on m’a retiré le droit…]. We were packed like animals, attacked from one side of the square and then the other by armed groups. I didn’t insult a single person; I didn’t raise my hand against anyone. Six hours of open-air detention with police intimidation. During these six hours, no window on the square was broken, no damage to public property. But I can tell you that, after several hours, even me, a pacifist, began to feel a certain anger growing. Need to protest. Yes. Because need to say No to “policing innovations” of this order. This detention was unjustified, abnormal. We were put under constant pressure, and the weapons deployed were not proportional to the crowd at hand. Like many of those present that afternoon at Bellecour, I was simply going to a demonstration, one that was declared and authorized by the police.

That night, I couldn’t get to sleep.

Lou-Andréa, student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, sociology MA program.

(Note on the language: I’m less sure of some of the expressions in brackets. Francophones, don’t hesitate to chime in.)

As usual, I don’t have time to really analyze all this. I’ll just note two things. (1) The idea of a “right to protest” ingrained in French national ideology is quite interesting, especially given that the author makes much of the fact that the police don’t even obey their own orders or live up to their own promises. It’s as if what produced anger was a failure of the expected bargaining with the state over the right to deviate within pre-arranged limits (eg, to go on a pre-approved march). As if, as long as the state respects its side of the usual bargain, the activists will do the same. It’s as if all political normativity was supposed to be mediated by the state, as if only the state was a truly legitimate authorizing agent.

(2) I’m struck by this being a story of the development of political anger, even fury. There is a great sense that things are undignified and that this indignity is really the chief thing that brings anger into being. The sense of having put up with too much. The sense of having exceeded the standards of emotional tolerability. Of being deprived of basic human rights. Of being subject to useless, gratuitous cruelty. As if the affront was partly a matter of the police being morally and intellectually incomprehensible. (Clifford Geertz liked writing about this: the intolerability of the incomprehensible.)

To me, most of the time the basic policy issues in French debates are more or less comprehensible, but what’s harder to relate to is the whole emotional world that the policy debates elicit. I mean, I just don’t have the same relationship to the State as your average French militant. I don’t have good intuitions for what makes people annoyed and what they tolerate, for what makes people feel like they’ve just had it and are going to crack… But narratives like this are good for trying to relate to that emotional world.

7 thoughts on “Testimonial from French protests

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for your translation.

    I am french, and I think you translated the expressions in brackets very well. Maybe “sonnés” would be best translated as “groggy”, or “dizzy”. One is usually “sonné” when one has received a punch in the face, or any other violent strike on the head without passing out.

    I am not sure about your first comment. The right to protest is not ingrained in the “national ideology” as much as it is in the law.

    “As if, as long as the state respects its side of the usual bargain, the activists will do the same.”

    It might be true for some “activists”. But, for example, the student who gave the account you translated did not bargain about anything with the state, did she ? And I am not sure she is an “activist”.

    Maybe I am biased, but I don’t think it requires much imagination to see that being detained without any charges, and further being beaten, tear-gassed, insulted and mocked by the police, for hours, and then seeing that almost only black and brown people get arrested, is something that provokes anger.

    “It’s as if what produced anger was a failure of the expected bargaining with the state over the right to deviate within pre-arranged limits (eg, to go on a pre-approved march). ”

    I think it is much simpler than that. I don’t think there is anything particularly french in all of this. I can remember of an interview with Howard Zinn in which he explained the emotional and political effect of the first time he got beaten by the police. He was simply walking down the street alongside a demonstration, and he got beaten. If I remember well, he became angry, and he realized that the State was not what he was told it is. He became “a radical”.

    Did you note that the event at Place Bellecour is a very particular and violent event, even for “french” (police) standards ? (The cop is right, this is an “innovation”, a kind of large scale, dissuasive torture)

    If you would like to learn more about the event at Place Bellecour, and further relate to this emotional world, you can read many more testimonials of this kind about this particular event here:


    If there is anything particularly “french” in all of this, I think it could be the history of the counter-insurgency doctrine and its role in contemporary police (see e.g : http://www.editionsladecouverte.fr/catalogue/index.php?ean13=9782707153968 )


    BTW, I try to follow your blog closely, it is very interesting, and good to have accounts “from afar” (as in Levy-Strauss ‘ “le regard éloigné), and yet very informed views, about all this. Thanks for your work.

  2. Hi Jérémy,

    Thanks for your very interesting comments. In responding, I can’t resist starting by saying something about my day. As I mentioned in the post above, I haven’t been involved in this social movement at all, but today I decided I had to go at least once to see what the manifs in Paris looked like. And, at least for someone who hasn’t seen the earlier ones this month, it was quite large; I started to walk from tip to tail and after 75 or 90 minutes I hadn’t reached the end of it.

    But anyway, related to the topic of the post, after I got to the end of the march (at Place St-Augustin), I went to walk back to my bike where I had locked it up, only to find that the CRS had set up an enormous blockade across Blvd Malesherbes, making it impossible to exit. There was, of course, no reason whatsoever for this blockade, since no one in sight was doing anything the least bit illegal or even suspicious. Moreover, according to some kid I asked, all or almost all the other exits from the place were also blocked. And I have to say, the experience of having the cops prevent me from walking down a certain boulevard was totally infuriating. So overwhelmingly pointless.

    Needless to say, having that very minor exposure to arbitrary police power definitely puts me more in the frame of mind to sympathize more emphatically, more corporeally, with the story at hand. Howard Zinn’s story doesn’t surprise me in the least; I’ve read similar accounts from may 68 in France, and the last decade was full of protests against the World Bank, IMF, G8, FTAA, etc, that often saw overwhelming levels of police force and probably led to any number of similar moments of radicalization.

    Having said this, let me say something more direct about your comment. Sure, “activist” may or may not be the right word for Lou-Andrea (I guess I should just have said “protester”). About “national ideology,” again it may not have been the best use of terminology: by “national ideology” I didn’t mean anything extremely pejorative; I really only meant something like “a common French belief grounded in a set of Republican principles.” Sure, it’s also the law, but people’s consciousness of the law is not the same as the law itself, and I guess by talking about national ideology I wanted to pick out that level of collective consciousness.

    Having made those qualifications, let me restate my basic point from (1) in the original post. What I was trying to say is simply that people’s response to police violence is a function of their expectations about the proper role of the state. Simply put, one can only be surprised by police violence inasmuch as one already has some prior ideas about what the police should and should not do, as the agents of legitimate force.

    Zinn’s experience is actually a good illustration of this point, I think, if “he realized that the State was not what he was told it is.” What such a comment reveals is precisely that he already had some prior notions about what the state ought and ought not do. When I talked about a “bargain with the state,” certainly, yes, you are right that no individual protester has made such a bargain, but what I meant to say was that there seems to be a sort of implicit, collective social contract with the state (a “bargain”), according to which the state has the right to use legitimate violence, but not beyond a certain point. In other words, to get mad at the cops for overreacting is basically to accept that the cops ought to have the right to use force, just not unjustified, excessive force. As you say yourself, what makes the Bellecourt incident infuriating is precisely that it exceeds the usual norms of police behavior. I guess I’m just trying to insist on a trivial anthropological point: that every sense of a transgression presupposes a norm.

    On one hand, yes, you are right that this isn’t entirely France-specific; perhaps similar feelings crop up in other democratic countries where there is some sort of right to protest. At the same time, it seems to me that socially privileged people are probably more likely to be outraged by these police tactics than those who (for largely racial reasons) are less likely to be surprised by them. The first témoignage, on the page you linked, has a story where the narrator, a white woman, talks to a younger boy of maghrébin origin:

    “Il nous a raconté, sans haus­ser la voix, comme si c’était là quel­que chose de banal, qu’un CRS, en le blo­quant, lui a dit d’un air mépri­sant qu’il l’avait reconnu, lui, un « cas­seur » de ce matin 9h. Le garçon nous a alors dit : « à 9h, je fai­sais une interro ! ». « Ils m’ont dit que les Blancs pas­saient mais pas les autres ». Je lui ai alors fait répé­ter la chose, ne pou­vant en croire mes oreilles. Oui, oui, le CRS lui a dit ça comme ça. Oui, oui. D’autres jeunes stig­ma­ti­sés depuis leur plus jeune âge par les flics nous ont adressé plus tôt la parole, d’un air rési­gné : « eh pour­quoi vous partez pas vous ? Vous êtes blancs, essayez, ils vous lais­se­ront passer, vous… ». Nous n’avons pas essayé.”

    What’s interesting here is that the maghrébin kid is precisely not shocked by this sort of police harassment; it’s the privileged white adult who is shocked… Not that this is generalizable, of course.

    Does any of this clear things up?

  3. Yes, it clears things up.

    I very much agree with your point about privileges, the expectations towards the police that goes with them, and the ensuing shock when these expectations are not met. I think this is an important point.

    In fact, my main reason to comment was certainly that I don’t think the “implicit bargain” is here about “the right to deviate within pre-arranged limits ((eg, to go on a pre-approved march)”.
    Yes, I agree, in this testimonial, there is a sense of an implicit bargain, or of implicit expectations that the police “normally” ought to respect some norms. But I don’t think Lou Andrea expected the police to allow her to deviate from the right to go on a pre-approved march. I think her expectations were simpler (not being tear-gassed, not being insulted, not seeing the police acting as racist pigs and the like).

    This is only tangential, but I would just like to add that anger can certainly stem from experiencing police brutality / authority etc, even though one does not expect anything “normal”, “legal”, or “legitimate” from the police.
    I want to say that there is anger on the one hand, and “shock” or surprise on the other. I think one can be angry after being insulted, even though one already knew full well that the insulting person does it very often.
    But this does not apply to the first testimonial you translated. There, anger effectively seems to stem from surprise, shock, a feeling of deception or betrayal.

    My taking issue with an ” idea of a right to protest ingraind in french national ideology” was not about it being pejorative, but analytically problematic.
    I don’t think there is a “common french belief” about it. And I think that the last quote illustrates this. The kid in the story does not share the same beliefs about the police and the state and the “right to protest” as the student of the ENS. Yet he is french. Then, I’d say this idea of a “right to protest” is ingrained in privileged-white (french) ideology.
    Or maybe it is only that we do not understand the word “french” the same way. That is very probable I guess 🙂
    If one defines “french” as white/privileged/bourgeois, then I think I agree with your point.

    I am not sure I am very clear. I shouldn’t try to write in english at this hour.

    Thanks very much for your thoughful and sympathetic response.

  4. Yeah, in the context of a right to protest, these questions about “what is French” and “what are French beliefs” are important and hard. And to make matters more interesting, the question of what is French is not just a question that should be settled by an analyst’s personal definition; it’s something that’s very much contested in France. There seem to be plenty of French racists who think that only white French people are really legitimate…

    I guess my saying that there is a “common French belief about protest” is nothing more than an inference from my experience with activists and from my experience reading French media coverage, which often depicts manifs as entirely normal, expected, legitimate affairs. My sense is that what varies is not so much the norm that protest is a legitimate form of expression, but rather people’s attitudes toward that norm, such that some (privileged) people feel authorized to actually go out and protest, whereas others (perhaps less privileged, perhaps just more apathetic) would never protest, themselves, but nonetheless recognize a manif as a well-established political genre. But I will think more about it.

  5. Also, I entirely agree with your remark that “anger can certainly stem from experiencing police brutality / authority etc, even though one does not expect anything ‘normal’, ‘legal’, or ‘legitimate’ from the police.” I myself have very low expectations for police behavior and, like yesterday, sometimes still find myself feeling a new sense of anger… stories like this hideous miscarriage of justice from Texas don’t help.

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