Sunday, July 27, 2014

Eyewitness report on banned Barbès protest

Despite a French state ban, a protest in support of Gaza took place last week in Barbès.  The demonstration took place for several hours, despite a police assault armed with tear gas.  The following eyewitness account is written by the French antifascist journalist Rene Monzat.  Monzat is one of the leading figures in the far left-inspired antifascist organisation Ras l'front.  His account also includes reflections on antisemitism in the movement.   I am grateful to Stephen Hastings-King for providing the translation.

Rene Monzat: The Surprising Protests of July 19

I followed the (banned) demonstration in solidarity with Gaza from 3 PM at the Gare du Nord until 7:30 PM at Boulevard de la Chapelle, passing through Barbès at around 4:30.  From the viewpoint of someone whose first demo was in 1971, against the American bombing in Vietnam, that of 19 July 2014 was atypical and, in at least one of its aspects, unprecedented.

 I left the Gare du Nord at 1500 at the same time as a group of women, most of whom seemed high-school or college students.  As we left, several of them began shouting “Israel murderer, Hollande accomplice” and “We are all Palestinians,” slogans that others took up and repeated.

At that time in front of the station I saw some Palestinian flags and one or two Turkish flags.  Dozens of people wearing headscarves, Keffiyeh etc. carried a large Palestinian flag.  There was only one banner: it said “Jews and Arabs United for Justice” and belonged to UJFP ATMF, Union juive française pour la paix et Associations des travailleurs maghrébins en France (the French Jewish Union for Peace and the Association of Maghreb Workers in France).

While hundreds of people continuously yelled slogans, others addressed the crowd with speeches, most of which were fairly disjointed in their delivery.  Some of them had a certain “nationalist” tone, claiming that Hollande’s was a double betrayal, one aspect of which was the pro-Israeli inflection in French policy and the other the banning of a legitimate demonstration in violation of basic civil and constitutional law.  The chants from the crowds shifted from “Hollande accomplice” to “Hollande resign.”

The demo was more or less static, stuck in a section of the rue Dunkirk in front of the exit from the station, penned in by the CRS, which has surrounded it at a remove of a few dozen meters.  After a while, a discussion began: “The police will let us go to Barbès (where the larger demo was being held).  What should we do?”  Some protestors began to shout “To Barbès” while others said: “But, if we stay here, we occupy a strategic location and complicate the work of the police, who have to manage two demos instead of one.”  Applause.  Some shouted “Occupied Gaza.  Occupied Gare Du Nord” which was good.  But it was never taken up and repeated.  It is difficult to arrive at that precise a political direction. 

Suddenly the people who were carrying the banner and some other protestors decided to take the metro, the only way into Barbès, which was also encircled by the police.  Sometime after 4 PM, the group that had remained at the Gare du Nord decided to head to Barbès as well.  Some young men acting as security were negotiating with the police and got them to open their roadblocks.  The group entered Barbès by the rue Guy Patin.  One part walked beneath a Palestinian flag that was 70-100 meters long, held aloft like a sheet by dozens of protestors both male and female.

The first surprise: the demonstration was composed of hundreds of little groups, acquaintances, friends, people from the same organizations, comrades from school.  There were mixed groups that were either mostly women or mostly men, and a significant number of groups comprised of young women.  In the confrontation zones, the overwhelming majority of the groups were made up entirely or almost entirely of young men.

The collective movements of this kind of crowd made life difficult for the police. Each group of 10 to 100 people had its own tactics.  Some staged sit-ins in front of the police line, shouting with their backs to them, not concerned particularly with them, re-occupying the same space 30 seconds or so before the exchanges of projectiles, tear gas grenades and flash balls happened. What’s more, the banning of the protest ipso facto guaranteed the absence of any official security.  But dozens of people took it on themselves to manage security: they were calm and able to put themselves in positions to stop the initial confrontations between the CRS, firing teargas and flash balls, and demonstrators throwing projectiles (plastic bottles or stones).

The radical sense of determination shared by a protest comprised of hundreds of fragments and the total absence of fear of the police on the part of ordinary people who had internalized the idea of non-violent protest certainly created a much bigger problem for the police than the overexcited boys throwing stones at the police from a dozen meters away.

This radical sense of determination had a source, which was expressed within each group: the absolute certainty of embodying right and legitimacy.  While no-one demonstrates for a cause they do not find to be just, I want to talk about this absolute certainty that each was defending a fundamental right in protesting despite everything, despite the ban and despite the troublemakers whose activities were totally counterproductive.  The protestors claimed that, here and now, they embodied The Law. The disorder was stupid, but the scandal was the ban itself.  From this followed the fact that thousands of people stayed for hours, surrounded by police who continuously shot tear gas at them (at least since Chateau Rouge).  No-one can say that the police were able to prevent the demonstration.  In reality, it held out for several hours.   Insofar as numbers are concerned, “The Collectif des organisateurs des manifs” (The Collective of Protest Organizers) counted 7-10,000 people and the RG (Renseignement Généraux, basically the police surveillance unit), which counted fewer, nonetheless told the press that, without the ban, the protest would have drawn over 10,000 people.
There is no doubt that for decades in the history of banned Parisian demos, this one drew the largest number of people and “held” for the longest time.

The inability of the police to ban the demonstration, despite an order from the Commissioner’s office, is remarkable.  They only encircled the demo, which happened almost “normally” despite the roadblocks, the closing of the metro stations and some fairly violent incidents.  Explosions were audible in the Barbès station.  Metro circulation was interrupted. At around 6 PM, dozens of people, including elderly women, were seen walking the platform along elevated sections of track on the way to La Chapelle station.  It was a strange situation.  I have never seen the two phases of protest and confrontation happen simultaneously.  Usually, one phase follows the other: the classic demo with slogans, then the call to disperse, then, eventually, incidents by the “hard-core,” or incidents that start in the course of a demo that bring about the dissolution of the “demo” phase.  The massive bombardment [of teargas] at the start of Chateau Rouge either should have prompted the rapid dispersal of the demo itself.  Otherwise, it was nothing.

The police found themselves confronted with a problem they could not solve.  The announcement of the ban on protests did not dissuade “ordinary” people from coming out.  The prohibition did not separate the “troublemakers” who would have come out alone, from the others, who would have stayed home out of fear.  So the police had to wait until the protestors were ready to leave.  But had they left too quickly, the departing groups would have themselves formed a demo and spread what the police had to contain.  This is what happened in part with the gathering that reformed into a procession and protested in Paris, without incident, dispersing at Les Halles around 7 PM.

Because the protestors stayed, the situation became politically delicate.  The CRS did not want to be shown arresting people who were doing a sit-in, tear gassing groups of seated and peaceful people.
Around 5, the teargas grenades launched by the CRS, which had come back down the boulevard Barbès as far as Chateau Rouge, started falling near the Barbès metro-stop.  The surge of protestors sped up along the boulevard de la Chapelle, while the hard-core of both sexes set up barricades using palettes from markets and umbrellas from nearby stands, but not without being called out by other protestors: “What are you doing?  This will be on TV’”; “Stop: you’re trashing your mother’s stand” etc. 

A clash at the top of rue Fleury, a police checkpoint on the rue de Chartres: a young woman, cheerful but also very calm, stood against the line held by the CRS, held up a megaphone and said, in a voice that parodied commercials: “Free passage.  Last minutes before closing.  Last minutes before gas.”  The CRS asked protestors who, one by one, crossed the checkpoint to remove their stickers, which they handed over on the way through.  Immediately a mini-demo formed of 60-70 people yelling: “Israel murderer, Hollande accomplice” right in front of the police line.  A group of maybe a dozen of the 200 police reservists who were in the neighborhood (they often come from the provinces) pulled flash ball pistols and tear gas launchers from their shoulder bags. Wanting to move the group of protestors that was now among them, the reservists roughed up a young woman who made a phone call within a tenth of a second it seemed, saying “These reserve guys (there were some women in other groups of reservists) are pulling out retractable clubs.” And the group continued to protest.  After several alternating periods of total calm and mounting tension, flash balls were fired from the rue Timbouctou.  The group retreated to the SNCF station at the Rue Jessaint, where they protested for a minute.  They disappeared as new reservists arrived over the bridge, calmly opening the trunks of (civilian) parked cars from which they pulled their materials: helmets, flash ball pistols etc.
The scene became surreal. Struggling along 200 meters of the boulevard de la Chapelle, while shots were heard and clouds of teargas appeared, protestors, again covered with stickers or draped in Palestinian flags, talked amongst themselves as if nothing was happening, as if the police were not assaulting them with clubs and shooting flash balls at them.  The same scene repeated in several places, and again at 7 PM where rue de Chartres dead-ends into boulevard de la Chapelle, a hundred meters or so from confrontations that were happening on the same street along the short section that runs beneath the walkway to Barbès. This sort of thing is inconceivable after a far-left or student union demo.  In those context, the cops are impersonal: they are abstractions or robots.  But on Saturday, dozens of protestors went to talk with and shame the police: “What are you doing? We have the right to protest.” Or “I pay my taxes, you have to protect me.”   Again, there was this certainty of being in the right before the police, who were taken as citizens and confronted with the values that they are charged with defending by their trade.

The final notable element concerns the political statements made by the protestors in the course of discussions.  While this is of course not a poll, I head dozens of people express the feeling of being betrayed by the Socialist Party.  Most of the people I heard had voted for Hollande in the presidential elections but said they will not be doing so again.  In fact many of them had already abstained from municipal and European elections, so their outrage about Gaza and the ban on protests confirmed developments [in their political thinking] that had started before [the Israeli operation in Gaza]
François Hollande and the political authorities did not understand the nature of the demonstration.  They created a situation which the police (those who acted “professionally”) could not manage.  This made the government look ridiculous: its decisions had augmented problems instead of helping to maintain calm around the exercise of the right to protest.

Second point: François Hollande lost the support of a sector of the population which had voted for him (children of immigrants, particularly among Muslim populations) after having lost the support of the sector of the population that, sociologically, most consistently votes Left (the workers).


I have been asked if I heard anti-Semitic slogans.  I saw many protestors walking behind the banner “Jews and Arabs United for Peace” which is the only one I saw at Gare du Nord and then at Barbès.  There might have been another with the NPA at the front on the way to Chateau Rouge.

I heard nothing anti-Semitic, neither in the main demo nor in the confrontations with the police.  Nor did I hear anything of the sort in the protests on the previous Saturday.

The “eye-witness accounts” that have been making the rounds concerning the demonstration on Saturday 13 July derive from an article written that afternoon which reported slogans that were not started from the organizer’s vans and were not taken up by any group.  Some of these are completely foul and were not referenced anywhere except by people who read this “eye-witness account” and pretended to hear what the article suggested they heard.  A video “documentary” called “Demonstration of Hate” superimposed the sub-titles “Jews murderers” or “one Jew all Jews are terrorists” when the demonstrators were shouting “Zionists, Fascists, It’s you who are the Terrorists”.  Paradoxically, the subtitles show that the slogans were never shouted: they were invented.

That said, I’m convinced that, in the present circumstances, the confusion of Israelis/Jews/Zionists is exceedingly dangerous and that it often happens….but not in the context of the slogans used in the two demonstrations that I attended, demos in which the organizers, on the contrary insisted on the need for new amalgamations: NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), UJFP (Union Juive Française pour la Paix), ATMF (Association des Travailleurs Maghrébins en France), CMF (Collectif des Musulmans de France), PIR (Parti des Indigènes de la République)).

These confusions are undoubtedly shared by the least politically structured elements among the protestors.  I read an article in Le Monde Juif that reported on things launched by “Jewish flunkies” at the CRS on July 19 at the same time as rocks, or from which crushes of people.  I didn’t hear anything like that during either of the two demos, but I have no reason to doubt Eric Hazan’s reporting (Hazan is a journalist).

There is a more measured article in terms of tone than in its title is called “Anti-Israel Protest: Anti-Jewish Hatred of the Protestors; Selected Excerpts.”  The text specifically references Le and specifies that, while it is not accusing all protestors of being anti-Jewish, very few among them had the courage to stand up to the unacceptable.

Beneath the article on Le Monde Juif’s site, you can read the following comments (edited independently of the will of the editors, with the original spelling).  The absolute irony of the situation, and the courage in standing up to the unacceptable!

Karen dit :  20 juillet 2014 à 15 h 15 min  We proud Zionists will crush pieces of shit like you like rats.  We’ll call Tsahal to count your dead one by one.  AM ISRAEL, HATED

MICHEL ATTIAS dit : 20 juillet 2014 à 16 h 00 min  Bunch of miserable, rotten niggers, stupider than sheep.  ISRAEL WILL TERRORIZE YOU AND FUCK YOU EVERY DAY.  250 DEAD AND WE ARE NOT FINISHED.   250,000 DEAD IS NOT ENOUGH, YOU MUST BE EXTERMINATED YOU ARE THE CANCER OF THE PLANET.