Photo copyright © Eric Francis. All rights reserved.

Wednesday Afternoon at the Bastille


IN FRANCE, PROTESTING is a something of a national sport. The Manifestation Squad (as I call it), that is, the cops who respond to protests (manifestations), are extremely busy. They travel in these impressive, loud caravans of busses and vans that wail around the city with their blue lights flashing. Their Bat Cave must be right down the block from me, because I always seem to catch their performances. The first few times I saw one, I thought either they were transporting high-risk prisoners who had been convicted of at least 12 felonies each, or it was the prime minister's motorcade. Then I asked some gendarmes and learned that, no, it was just manifestations.

On Wednesday, I was innocently writing my Q&A column for Jonathan's site in my favorite café, across the street from the Sorbonne, the great and famous university in Paris. I sit in a corner of the window, typing my articles and stories in, watching the extremely beautiful passers-by and spending too much on coffee and eggs (a cup of coffee in central Paris can cost between $3 and $12; in this neighborhood, it's about $5). That particular day, the protest cops had one of their motorcades staking out the street in front of the café (Rue des Ecoles). They go someplace near where they're expecting a protest, wait for a while, then if and when it shows up, they gear up and get into position -- or if they had bad information, they go rushing to the scene once it manifests.
The cops were hanging around, also taking in the scenery, and we were exchanging astonished looks and basically flirting in that guy-like way through the window. Finally, I went out and said hello and asked what they were doing, and it turned out that a big march was supposed to be coming down Boulevard St Michel in a little while.
These protests are always fun. The energy is amazing. It seems mostly girls show up, and they are on fire, and having a great time screaming their heads off about Résistance! and making their political statements.

So, I finished what I was doing, packed up and got ready myself. I was about to begin this article by apologizing that I didn't have my camera. However, I solved that later, but for starters I walked up to the corner to watch. It took a while for the protest to show up, finally the cops got into position, the traffic stopped, and then something different was coming down the boulevard.
The cops were ready. They had huge fiberglass and Lucite shields, shin guards, and shoulder pads; they were wearing cadet caps, but had helmets ready on their belts, plus gas masks, guns and the versatile Prosecutor-24 riot sticks -- the full regalia. There were a couple of teargas guys. On this corner alone there was a force of about 75 total, and they blocked traffic from all directions, forming about five different lines to defend the city. Meanwhile, tourists and passers by were calmly traipsing along. Everyone was in a pretty good mood.
I hung my press card around my neck. Every now and again, it comes in handy for something besides getting into a museum free. It's a prop purely for the sake of the cops. It's good to have in situations like this, because it announces that I'm just another working Joe like them. Mine has a big purple NO WAR button covering most of it up.

While I was waiting, some American tourists came up to me and asked what was going to happen.
"A whole bunch of cute little kids are coming," I said.
"No," she said, incredulous. She was a schoolteacher from New Jersey (Exit 7). Obviously it couldn't be a bunch of kids. The Manifestation Squad looked like it could hold down the Iraqi insurgency.
"Wait 10 minutes," I said.

"These guys look like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," she commented, referring to the battalion of riot guys standing around.
First came about 20 white vans, with their blue lights flashing, leading up the procession. Then there were several trucks with cages around them. Then came the students. There were about 500 of them, with backpacks slung over their shoulders and wearing Guatemalan hippie clothes and swilling water from bottles and looking pretty casual. Some kids came up to the billboard where I was standing and wheat-pasted up a couple of posters, one encouraging everyone to be polite, and another against Bush and imperialism.
It was a really small protest; a crowd of 10,000 is more like normal. So what you had here was a bunch of students being escorted with a one-to-one ratio of cops, basically surrounded by a little army. They stopped right there, chanting:
    Lycéens en coléres! [blah blah blah] le ministére!

That is, we're pissed off high school students and we're against something the Minister of Education is doing, particularly, cutting the budget. Now, if I may say so, I am a connoisseur of budget cut protests. When I was covering the City University of New York in the 90s, I went to tons of them. And some were hot, fuelled by a lot of inner city rage and organized by the Dominican Workers' Party (the PTD). I once marched with about 20,000 students snaking through the streets of lower Manhattan, taking fast turns, outwitting the cops, and then watched as they stormed the steps of the New York Stock Exchange. I've lived in seized buildings, seen exciting takeovers of Board of Trustees meetings by grad students, and a bunch besides.

But none of them have had the feeling of a French student protest.
Though as I say, this was modest by French standards; the excuse I heard was that many students were caught studying for exams. Anyway, after stopping at the corner of St Michele and Rue des Ecoles, the group moved on, followed by a bunch more white vans, lots more cops, and finally, taking up the rear, came the street sweeping squad consisting of about seven green vehicles of a variety of shapes and sizes, some of which looked like they had given birth to one another. For some reason this detail of the cleanup crew struck me as being particularly hilarious -- but I was not thinking like a military strategist. Then, 10 minutes later, came a lot more white vans. Nobody was taking any chances.

It was positively ridiculous.

After the students passed, the Manifestation Squads jogged around in formation, some followed the students, others got back into their vans, and I started toward home. On my street corner a few blocks away, there were hundreds more cops and busses and vans -- a traffic jam. So I went up and got my camera, bought a soda, and found out that the whole show was heading up to the Bastille about 10 blocks away. I thought it was going to be a rally or something, with speakers and music and hot dogs. The cops knew something I did not.

I got to the Bastille. Once again, streets in every direction were blocked off. There were perhaps 10 or 20 different riot lines; it was a total lockdown. And why? The students had taken over the immense Bastille traffic circle, right at the center of the city, during the evening rush hour.
This looked like it was going to be fun. Here are some photos. >>

Planet Waves Home | What's New | Horoscopes | Subscriber Login | About Subscribing