Scenes From Paris Protests (and an Update from Alison)

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Reader Dan O points out:

Especially note around the 4 minute mark where one guy uses a big piece of metal to puncture the window of a cop car then another guy throws in what appears to be a burning road flare or maybe a molotov cocktail. The cop calmly gets out and is confronted by another guy who tries to beat him with a big stick. The cop calmly fends off the blows and finally somebody pulls away the guy with the stick. Imagine this in the US. There would be so many dead civilians.

By the way, that cop is not a white Frenchman. And it turns out that he was still just a novice who wasn’t fully qualified.

There’s more discussion on Canal+ here.

From the headlines, more groups seem to be joining the strikes against proposed (anti) labor laws. Would very much like reader input from France on the following:

1. How widespread is disruption and inconvenience? Do you have an intelligence about the impact of the strikes in various major cities and regions, not just in Paris?

2. Do you have a sense as to how many of the protests have become violent? The French have a proud tradition of going to the barricades, so outbreaks are probably as tactically more effective than in the US. But with so many transportation workers striking, the protestors would seem able to throw a lot of sand in the gears.

3. What is your best guess as to how this plays out?

Update 4:00 AM. Via e-mail from Alison L:

Here is the latest on the disruptions in France, courtesy of France 2 news for 26 May.

There were demonstrations and violent clashes, unrest, teargas, arrests, injuries, vandalism to businesses, street fires, and from the footage it looks like the police were being rough and grabbing and hitting people arbitrarily who were not necessarily troublemakers. Ugly stuff at Nation in Paris – footage of cops in riot gear charging the crowd, and there was an hour of chaos. Rennes, Nantes, and other cities have seen a lot of unrest as well.

The transportation disruptions are starting to bite: businesses large and small that rely on delivery by gas-powered vehicles are suffering and losing money; people are cancelling hotel reservations; restaurants in certain areas that depend on tourism are losing money; trucking firms and construction projects are stalling. People are getting frustrated with the petrol shortages, lines, and other disruptions. 3600 petrol stations, 30% in France, are out of service. Each day of transportation of merchandise disrupted = 20 million euros a day lost.

Economists agree that the impact is limited for now because France is not (yet) having a general strike, and this has not gone on very long. However, France’s international image is suffering, there is concern about losing foreign investment, and tourism is impacted. Also, France is dipping into its strategic fuel reserves.

The Prime Minister Manuel Valls in a radio interview insisted the (socialist) government would not touch Article 2 of the labor reform law they are trying to impose by fiat (authorized by Article 49.3 in French law), which is at the heart of the conflict with union workers all over France. But Valls said there could be “des améliorations” (improvements) to the law. The militant CGT union has been demanding a total withdrawal of the labor reform, not modifications. The head of the union speculated that the president, François Hollande, no longer has majority support concerning the law. Hollande himself, in Japan for a G7 meeting, evoked the prospect of rewriting the law before it goes before the National Assembly again. They are trying to calm things down, but my sense is that it is not nearly enough. The CGT and Force Ouvrière unions are not falling for it – they intend to continue the marches, strikes, blockades, and disruptions. The Euro Cup in France is 10 June to 10 July. With typical French understatement, one guy remarked, “a Euro Cup without the métro, without trains, without petrol and in the dark will be a bit complicated.”

Some links in English:

French links:

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  1. Bubba_Gump

    Spent this past Mon/Tues in France to visit family. No observable issues. Square at Bastille being cleaned of sand from some sort of beach-y weekend car promotion, Republique quiet and peaceful, work going along as usual, many many people out shopping and eating in the 12e and 4e. Took a bike ride down to Luxembourg gardens through Latin Quarter and everything was totally normal, students all packing the area but showing no signs of protest. Didn’t take metro but it was clearly operating as were buses. Came in by Thalys high speed train and flew out from CDG Wed morning, no issues, no delays. We were fortunate enough to make it out before the ATC strike started up again, I think later that day.

    Family says it’s shaping up to be an ugly summer — they’re thinking it might be best to plan on getting out of town for a while when it heats up, especially considering the 2016 European Cup being held in Paris mostly. Hollande isn’t giving in, the unions aren’t giving in… everyone is uneasy. Security is tighter where they live.

  2. Alex Hanin

    Is that policeman in the car a super-hero? The guy has ice in his veins.

    More seriously, it’s a pity those demonstrations are always ruined by ‘casseurs’ (literally ‘breakers’).

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I had to laugh at that, he is one seriously cool cop. He is huge, he could have broken that guy with the plastic pipe in two.

      I suspect that the Police are under instructions to let the crowds vent off steam. Its France, once its time for lunch they’ll all go home.

    2. Jim

      Smashing the windows of police vehicles is not peaceful protest except in the Orwellian language of the left. The demonstrators are obviously trying to provoke a violent reaction from the police.

      1. Lambert Strether

        It isn’t, no. The issue (as always) is that there are multiple systems at play in the space or field of force created (enacted?) by the protest: 1) Organizers, most protesters, not violent; 2) Black Bloc types, violent; 3) agent provocateurs, violent; 4) random people mostly young men (often violent). Of course, #2, #3, and #4 overlap, and #2 and #3 both have incentives to escalate.

        Of course, smashing the windows of a cop car is just spectacle. Now, seizing a television station….

  3. Swedish Lex

    Trade union density in France is at a ridiculous level of 7% (in Sweden it is 70%) which means that the unions only represent a tiny majority of workers in France. Part of the explanation for French unions actually not representing the people they say they represent is that their funding comes in part from the Government and in part from what basically is a tax on the companies. To my knowledge (tbc), trade unions in Sweden are essentially financed by the voluntary fees of its members.

    The result is that French trade unions have become rich bastions of power that are protected by law but that do not have any incentive to actually represent the collective of workers in any meaningful way. In reality, companies and trade unions at the local level try to manage things as best they can. Historically, this has included significant amounts of cash being handed over from employers to the trade unions, never to be seen again, in order to “smooth” things.

    Additionally, there are several different trade unions that compete between themselves for influence and members. The lunatic CGT has as business model to always say no to everything. The CGT, historically the biggest union, has however seen its market share shrink to the CFDT. The CFDT is not against the proposed legislation that this big bad show is about. The CGT is therefore trying to make as much noise as they can in order to protect its market share against the CFDT.

    To a German or a Sweden, what is going on has very little to do with workers relations. This country is basically incapable of social dialogue. Part of the problem is the fact that trade unions are protected bastions of influence that look after their own interests and not the interests who they are supposed to represent.



    1. Chris in Paris

      Swedish, the unions may not have members in high numbers but we do vote for them in works council elections and believe me, those are important and taken seriously. The CGT has millions of non members who consistently support them. That is a hidden power base.

      1. Swedish Lex

        Les comités d’entreprises have been notoriously corrupt, with opaque financial reporting (if any) and basically a source of cash for trade union reps whose fiefdoms are protected by the Law:

        There is apparently a new law that entered into force last year under which these committees will have to render their accounts like us normal mortals.

        But being a trade union rep for a big company in France, ideally state owned, means that you belong to the rentier class.

        Our chimney sweeper was just here and did the annual inspection. He, like all the other small enterprises, have seen their taxes and social charges go up for the past ten years without getting anything in return. Now the CGT are blocking the roads and the access to fuel, which means that they cannot work. But they must continue to pay their taxes and social charges. The gardeners had to stop working because their tools ran out of petrol. Etc. The backbone of the French society and economy are equally fed up with the corrupt and incompetent political class (left, right, center) as with the pompus trade unions that block the country.

        1. makedoanmend

          And the pompous Capitalist class’s hands are clean. Neoliberalism is just a mirage! If only all the THEYS would let our entrepreneurial spirits free the world would be a better place. Except it isn’t. The world is complex with many competing interests and the only class being excluded from the negotiating table is labour – the working people. We working people are just supposed to be thankful that the corporations allow us to use their petrol for a price, their health insurance for a price, their houses for a price – everything for a price. Our only concern is just gaining access to the capital accumulated by the few and for the few for a price.

          We’ve had 40 years of neoliberal economics but any time a union finally says that the government class, of whatever stripe, cannot unilaterally impose the neoliberal castrating agenda upon us the consumers-worker bees are supposed to rise up in arms not against the neoliberals but ourselves because we are stopping ourselves, via unions, from working for peanuts. Yes, those damn unions since Reagan and Thatcher have caused nothing but impose hardship on us poor workers. How dare they!

          I work part time as a gardener. I do this because the UK, home of the entrepreneur according to our betters, makes sure that everything is expensive and fewer and fewer co-workers can afford gardening services. Every year it just gets worse. Every year more independent shops close down. Every year the people who call us names have a tendency to collect the rents off our labour, our need for shelter and now they want our health. I dearly wish someone would stop the petrol flowing for a few days in the UK.

          But the damn UK unions here are just too entrepreneurial. Man, I wish I was smelling your Uber roses. The class war is on. It was initiated by the neoliberal class, is being waged by the neoliberal class, and it’s far from non-political. You can blame the right, centre and left but it the class war being waged isn’t going to stop until someone stands up to the current power structure. Everybody cocooned in their own little entrepreneurial work mowing grass, driving taxis, cutting each other’s hair and flipping burgers isn’t going to change anything.

          Collective bargaining is a proven formula for working person success – in times of plenty and in times of penury.

        2. jsn

          OK, say you’re right, are the rich getting poorer in Sweden? Is there “growth”? Who is benefiting from it?

          You’ve reported the middle class isn’t benefiting. Have the poor become appreciably richer?

          Incompetence, corruption and malfeasance are always and everywhere a part of large organizations whether governments, corporations, clubs, churches, armies, whatever, that’s the human condition. Who is your incompetent, corrupt and somewhat criminal government making better off? It’s very clear who ours favors here in the US.

        3. Brooklin Bridge

          Le Figaro is notoriously right wing, for what ever it’s worth. Without the French unions over the last 40 years the French workers would be in terrible shape and social programs would have been demonized, never mind reduced to almost nothing, as they have been here. Naturally it affects everyone when they go on strike, France is the size of Texas, but generally they do so because workers/farmers are under constant attack by the overlords of industry and finance. By definition, a strike isn’t to make life easy for the overlords, and strikes are a blunt tool, but other than strikes, they have very little effective recourse. Their political system has become identical to ours, simply a ratchet mechanism to move ever rightward, ever more toward privatization, ever more toward capitalistic feudalism, with socialists and communist parties shoving and pushing each other to be first in line to sell our their constituents.

          Here in the US, the last thing unions do now is go on strike. Instead Union leaders make secret deals with the overlords and pocket the money that should be protecting workers. That isn’t to say corruption of Union members isn’t present in France. Unfortunately, France is loosing it’s battle against neoliberalism. It’s global now, the forces against the little guy are simply overwhelming. But by in large the unions in France are still actively involved in the protection of worker’s and by extension social rights.

            1. neo-realist

              Will be visiting in early October. Heavens to Murgatroyd!, I hope the authorities put down this violence with an iron hand so that my delicate and myopic American sensibilities won’t be privy to such anarchy and chaos:).

            1. Brooklin Bridge

              Le Figaro is a right wing publication. That is beyond dispute and has nothing to do with stereotypes.

              I can’t defend Union corruption, it is certain that the French Unions accomplished a great deal more in the 3rd Republic than in the 5th, but to imply they are simply corrupt or that they are not very important even in contemporary France would be wrong, inaccurate.

              Thanks for the invite. I generally stay with family, in-laws but close, when I’m there but they have only been in France for hundreds of years (that’s recorded – probably many many more than that) so the gesture of welcome is appreciated. Of course I don’t imagine for a moment that has anything what-so-ever to do with Le Figaro or with the fact that it is right wing (though I imagine it is no coincidence that family members who are themselves right wing tend to read it regularly where as others more to the left do not).

        4. vidimi

          well, the bigger the company, the more corrupt the CE. no doubt, the management does what they can to capture the CE, it’s fundamental.

          that said, it’s still the most democratic system i know of (representatives are voted for) and the CE brings tangible benefits to its members. subsidized lunches, transport, purchases, cultural tickets, vacations, etc. the unions, too, while to different degrees captured, still offer some resistance.

          basically, while far from perfect, the french system is better than the alternative, and the loi el khomri is a nasty piece of work that should be stopped.

  4. Tenar

    1. For the moment the disruption is minimal in Paris, but as someone who doesn’t drive I don’t think this is representative of the situation throughout France. Colleagues and various others have mentioned very long lines at the pump, but apparently things aren’t as bad as they were a few days ago because people were stocking up.

    2. I can’t speak from first-hand experience about violence during protests, but I work near Bastille and went out to see the beginning of the protest yesterday. It seemed festive and like the protesters were in good spirits. The violence during protests seems to usually come from a small minority of “casseurs”.

    3. My (very humble) guess: I don’t foresee the government withdrawing the law altogether (although they did abruptly abandon their months-long effort to change constitution to strip “terrorists” of their French nationality, so there is a precedent) unless the strikes continue to grow and last. For the last day or so there have been conflicting messages coming from different members of the government about possible modifications, so there might be some mild changes offered as an olive branch. I agree with Alison that attempts to offer mild modifications won’t work.

    Side note: The government is clearly hoping that the irritation of being inconvenienced will turn public sentiment against the strikes, but a poll published yesterday shows that a majority (62%) of the French think the strikes are justified and that if things go badly that it’ll be the government’s fault:

  5. David

    Unions in France are largely funded by their members, as elsewhere, but these members generally criticise them for being too complacent and ineffectual, not too radical. The CGT does have a bit of a reputation for shooting from the hip, especially in the transport area.
    But this is different. Much of France is up in arms against the Loi El Khomri, not least young people who can see the the last chance of a permanent job, apartment etc. disappearing. Interestingly enough, there has been a surge of radicalization in the Universities over the issue, even among elite institutions and wealthy students. There’s a widespread sense that twenty years of neoliberal pummeling of French society is going to have to stop, and the French do have, as some have noted, have a tradition of making their dislikes known quite firmly.
    But the violence is different, and is largely the responsibility of fringe groups (the “casseurs”) who are essentially looking for a fight with the police under any circumstances. The video actually shows a demonstration in favour of the police (in sympathy with a similar attack for which four people were later arrested.) The demonstration is being managed not by the police but by the gendarmerie (military police) who in the video are wearing plastic body armor but don’t have their helmets on, so they don’t expect things to get too serious. The car that was attacked, on the other hand, was a police car, and it was almost certainly the casseurs who hit it. The French police are not universally liked, but they would never dream of drawing their weapons in such a situation, still less of using them, unless their lives or somebody else’s were visibly in danger. French law is quite strict on this point.
    Oh, and don’t believe what you read in “Le Figaro.” In fact, don’t read Le Figaro, it’s been running anti-trades union propaganda for the last century or so. Small French businessmen love whining about trades unions, but somehow they all manage to close their businesses in the summer and go off for five weeks holiday. You try finding a small business in Paris open in August.

    1. hemeantwell

      Oh, and don’t believe what you read in “Le Figaro.” In fact, don’t read Le Figaro, it’s been running anti-trades union propaganda for the last century or so

      +1 What would be the equivalent rag in the US?

      Small French businessmen love whining about trades unions

      As do small business owners most everywhere.

      David, can you give us any detail regarding coordination between the unions and the students?

  6. hemeantwell

    The French have a proud tradition of going to the barricades,

    Eric Hazan has a very interesting and, if you like accounts of street fighting in which the state is occasionally defeated, exciting and moving history of the use of the barricade: Barricade.

    His history of the French Revolution is also excellent. Good and fair-minded analysis that argues against shallow liberal understandings of the use of terror by the revolutionaries.

  7. RUKidding

    Thanks for the update on the situation in France, plus good comments, including info about UK and Sweden. Really appreciate getting this type of news, which is not readily available except on sites like NC.

  8. JohnnyGL

    It’s also worth pointing out that the cops don’t rough up any of the people recording any of the footage.

    But yes, that one cop at the 4 minute mark was the most disciplined guy I’ve ever seen.

  9. Bunk McNulty

    Heading for Strasbourg on Sunday, for a week in the Alsace vineyards. Then taking the train (if it’s running) to Quimper to meet friends and have a week by the Atlantic (if there’s enough gasoline for sight-seeing), then a couple days in Paris to meet more friends and home from CDG on the 14th, unless not. I’ll report when I can.

  10. Michael Spratt

    France is feeling the “Bern” too.
    Holland is taking France as far right as he can in order to poach marginal Sarkozy and Le Pen voters.
    Also as a self-employed strikes have always hurt me. But I figure the more I earn the richer I make the elites and poorer I make society. Plus, main media is really out of touch like it is in the USA. Its via the cacophony on the web that one can get a real sense of the ideas and feelings circulating. It doesn’t seem violent but more like fixing limits and red lines.

  11. David

    Saturday afternoon.
    The mood in Paris, anyway, seems to be gloomy rather than insurrectional, and there is little sign of overt tension. In my local supermarket there were some noticeable, if random, gaps on the shelves, but latest reports are that all but one of the refineries that were blocked are now delivering petrol again. The mood of the trades unions shows no sign of moderating, though.
    For his part, Hollande can’t now give in without destroying what little credibility he has left. Its not about the content of the law any more, to the extent that it ever was, but about his fragile authority in the face of Valls, the hardline Prime Minister who desperately wants to be President, and Macron, the teenage former merchant banker who is Minister for the Economy and desperately wants to be President when he grows up. Each is seeking to outdo the other in enthusiasm for kneecapping the Socialist Party’s natural supporters.
    It will get worse before it gets better. The parliamentary timetable is such that the law won’t come back to the lower house (the Assemblée nationale) until the beginning of July, which, as Le Monde put it this morning is an eternity away. Added to that is the Euro 2016 football competition which starts in two weeks, and Ramadan which begins around the same time. The police and Army are exhausted after six months of the highest security alert state possible

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