In November there were the murmurings of a movement around the question of the cost of living—“la vie chère”—in France. This coincided with a week of strikes by refinery workers, which stalled the country. The workers were striking for a wage increase in the face of high energy company profits. The leftwing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon had tried to create a movement around inflation. Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, responded that the unions would wait to go on strike properly, as the government would announce yet another reform of the pension system in January.
Today is the first general-strike day. It will not be an ongoing, rolling strike, because the strategy seems to be intense “days of action” while the text of the law “reforming” the pension system is still being drafted over in the Assemblée. In Paris it is cold and crisp. The demonstration is so big (CGT: 400,000, Prefecture de police: 80,000) that it doesn’t really set off for hours, and is blocked at place de la République. There are no metros except the semi-automated 14 and the 1, which are running on reduced service. There is disrupted radio that morning—elevator music because the radio workers are on strike too. This is reminiscent of the first day of the huge transport strike on December 5, 2019, also over pensions, where we are blocked for hours in an increasingly condensed crowd in minus temperatures, unable to get through the République bottleneck. In this case, though, two demonstrations form after several hours of waiting. One sets off along the boulevard Voltaire, and the other along the boulevard Beaumarchais, the planned route.
These boulevards are not parallel; indeed the makeshift route formed a straighter line to the destination of the march at Nation. At about 5.30pm (the march had started at 2pm), the back of the crowd—different divisions of different unions, with speakers playing 1980s punk music (antisocial by Trust, is the vibe)—is only just setting off. The light was fading and this end of the cortege was also singing the usual songs (On est là, on est là, etc). It was colossally big. That’s to say the route was 4.3km, and there was the new route, and people were arriving at Nation simultaneously with the lend of the cortege leaving République. There were some “affrontements” on the boulevard Beaumarchais, which left traces in the form of broken glass and tagged shop fronts.
It was hard to work out what was going on. The affrontements were mainly hearsay, since the march was so long and oddly structured. Nothing had happened on the makeshift march. Police lay in wait on different crossroads, but they were not particularly aggressive. On boulevard Diderot, there was something that looked like a standoff, with people hesitating and wandering around.
I bumped into some technicians from the Palais Garnier opera whom I recognised. One of them had been sitting next to me in the dark in the piano dress rehearsal for Peter Grimes I’d been to two days before, where I’d learned that the show I was seeing was doubly cursed, first by the pandemic and then because the orchestra dress rehearsal might not happen and therefore the opening would be cancelled too. No one there was particularly upset about the strike, it was just a fact that the opening might not happen. They were having lighting cue problems which were throwing everything off, and because neither the singer nor the audience for that matter could see an acrobat, supposed to represent a dead sailor, who would fly into the scene, the singer kept missing his cue. I watched these representations of proletarian life in a bar being taken apart and put back together with the disdainful soundtrack of its director trying hard to speak with the respect appropriate for the stage hands.
Today they walked with me a bit and explained that neither they, as intermittents de spectacle, nor the ballerinas of the Opera were affected by the pension reform this time (last time, the ballerinas were). I was a little disappointed because I had been excited in the empty theatre on Thursday about satisfying a long-held wish to interview ballerinas on strike (a wish which, like the opera, had been thwarted by the pandemic). There were affrontements, pavés being thrown, advertising billboards being smashed, people moving back and forth, and a conspicuous absence of police, as I tried to keep one ear on the specific status and structure of labor law relating to theatre workers and how this divided them from the class struggle, and one eye on the rest of the scene.
At Nation the square was filled with people in the dark talking about things and watching with mild interest as the rest of the march was arriving. The statue in the middle of the place was adorned with banners, and teenagers roamed the place carrying various objects. The cafés next to Nation, where an espresso costs an extortionate 3.80, were teeming with what I thought might be gilets jaunes from the countryside, who were taking a pause from the cold and from the demonstration. The last of the unions were finally arriving. There were some Lime bikes being burned in a pile, and a crowd of people were watching and filming and warming themselves as the pyre became higher and more impressive.
I got in a very strange conversation with someone claiming to be a sociology professor from one of the Paris universities, who had made friends with a younger, jumped-up man who was adding bikes to the fire. I smiled when I overheard part of their conversation. But then the professor started to tell me that they’d just met, and that they had a lot in common. I asked—your working conditions? And he said “No, about women! We just can’t get women.” I smiled again. He was drinking a flask of whisky and the younger guy came back every so often between throwing bicycles on the fire to say things like “I love flames,” and “I never knew my dad.” To which the sociology professor, with tears in his eyes, said “I just lost mine.” An odd couple. It has little to do with their respective jobs, but as they spout out masculine rage, a few conspiracy theories, and the professor seems drunk and overworked, I begin to think there’s something in this exchange that reminds me of the demonstrations of last year. The police were not doing anything about the 10 foot-high flames, and then there was some kind of light charge.
During the week between the first two demonstrations, I went to a performance of Beckett’s Fin de partie (Endgame) in the Theatre de l’atelier in the 18eme, and to an exhibition of Oskar Kokoschka’s paintings at the Musée de l’art moderne near the Eiffel tower in the west of Paris. The person I went to the Kokoschka with pointed out that it was a little difficult to bear going to the exhibition, filled as it was with the exact demographic of people who probably backed the pension reform while enjoying the fruits of social democracy (free museums, days off to see paintings). While this seemed to me a little ageist, once he’d said it, it was hard to unsee. The museum-goers were indeed old right-wing pensioners, wealthy white pensioners from the south and west of Paris, themselves comfortable in retirement, enjoying free passes to a state museum, who kept pushing us aside to look at the paintings with conspicuous glares and without saying so much as “excuse me.” Later, upon reflection, it did occur to me that it was funny that the audience of Endgame, the horrifying end-of-life drama, was mainly young, that the tickets were expensive whereas the museum was free, and that the people watching it would not only have to work longer but probably wouldn’t have the same access to elder care as the people who were sighing with annoyance as some enthusiastic high schoolers on an educational visit responded raucously to questions about Kokoschka.
Another huge demonstration. This time it starts at place d’Italie, but it’s too big to join so instead we join at Gobelins. The day before, the text of the reform had arrived in the National Assembly, where Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said that retirement at 64 was “no longer negotiable.” This was a move to appease the right; it means there is nothing left of substance in Macron’s “political project,” and that unions like the CFDT (former collaborators in the shiny neoliberal package of the last pension reform), are back in the united front against Macron. This was the big news last week. Macronie is basically synonymous with audace. It is either right wing or without content. The leader of the CFDT urged Macron to “listen to the discontent being widely expressed.” On the 31, schools, public transport, power stations, refineries were disrupted or blocked. Metros in Paris were “very disrupted,” but several lines were open during rush hour, with limited frequency. Mayors’ offices were closed too.
(The price of a metro ticket skyrocketed outrageously at the turn of the year, from 1.90 to 2.40; there are no longer paper tickets; and we were all sent letters by some government minister saying how she’d managed to get this necessary increase down on our behalf because otherwise it would have gone up more, which was necessary to pay off the deficit incurred by the pandemic.)
The demonstrations nationwide broke the national record for participation since the 1995 strikes against the Juppé plan, even according to the interior minister’s figures (1.272 million). In Paris, 500,000 marched according to the CGT, 87,000 according to the police. Anyway, the demonstrations are huge and then what? It’s a huge number that, when in a crowd, one cannot grasp. The idea is now that the police are hands off, but this seems to be a strategy of down-playing any property damage. You can tell that the metalworkers are all ready to go. It is as if everyone is asking themselves when the violence will really start. This was the same in the demonstrations about the cost-of-living crisis in October. People were calm, especially in unions like SUD, they weren’t the least concerned about any hierarchization of protesters, nor were they scared of the police.
The police charged the crowd near the Hôpital Necker. At Invalides, the CFDT were actually pushing back against the police. What a turn-around. You could see their little blue balloons moving back and forth as they withstood police charges. The police had bordered the place; one informed me that I might be in danger of receiving a pavé to the head if I went the way I was going. I asked if I was formally forbidden from going on. Well, Madame, I can’t stop you. Can’t stop you was the vibe in the place as well. There were absurd numbers of police but no one seemed to be getting very hurt, although the police were functioning as a snatch squad. Straggles of zoomers, goths, black bloc, gilets jaunes, were observing from a wall. The place was full of a mixed crowd, gas, pink flares. It went on for a good hour, the back and forth, although it was difficult really to see anything. Finally, the square was emptied, but the union part of the march was still arriving, completely unaware of all the unearthed paving stones. I walked all the way back through the still-continuing demonstration. There were thirty or so arrests, against 28 from the week before.
Another day, another huge demonstration. It started at Opéra, it was enormous, it took a long time to set off. It wasn’t possible to move for the density on both the huge boulevard and the sidewalk. It was sunny. Like the previous week, there were inordinate numbers of police, there en masse but hiding in side streets. Conspicuously inconspicuous. There were all the things there are at these events: metalworkers, different divisions of different unions. The demonstration felt unpoliced, along the boulevard Bonne Nouvelle up until Beaumarchais, that is. But at Filles de calvaire, there were constant charges. The police would snatch people and push them into the little side streets, randomly arrest people, and then occupy the streets. An older anarchist (I know this because he was wearing a badge saying Afed), was arrested for no reason, along with his partner and some bystanders. All of rue Amelot, which runs to the north of the boulevard Beaumarchais, felt like a trap. The main chant that day, by everyone, was tout le monde déteste la police.
At Bastille there was the usual waiting game, as the rest of the (again enormous) demonstration arrived slowly. There was a burning barricade on rue de Bastille, and a large crowd. It was still light. Demonstrators had managed to push back the police and then make a wall of fire, which a crowd--including some firemen (on strike)--were watching. After dark, in the bar l’Etincelle on rue Amelot, there were televisions which showed confrontations on the place. A group on the southeast side of the square actively attacking the police, throwing paving stones, wicker chairs seized from a terrasse, and bottles, for half an hour ; a restaurant had apparently been attacked and closed; eventually the police began to charge. Through all the objects flying, you could see a long telescopic rod carried by police—a camera as it turned out. There were targeted arrests as people left.
On the next day, February 8, the newspaper Le parisien publishes an exclusive interview with the CEO of Total, making public their yearly figures. He says that if nine billion in profits didn’t go to stakeholders, there would be no business in France, that they make a mere one centime on every litre of petrol, and finally that people are living longer and so the only way to accommodate this is for them to work longer. The next day all headlines are about oil-company superprofits.