Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A banned demonstration and police kettling in Barbès

This is a translated article from the French investigative magazine, MediaPart, about the protest that took place in Barbès, Saturday 19th July 2014.  I am grateful to Kim Bridger and Camille Carollo for the translation.

Saturday’s demonstration in support of Palestine, banned by the Parisian police with the consent of the Government, degenerated after two hours. There were too many demonstrators to keep together and control those willing to cause trouble at any price. The first tear gas broke up most of the massive crowd, but it also turned the neighbourhood into a theatre of guerrilla warfare, with riot police and the throwing of stones.

“It would have been simpler to allow it to take place”. This complaint from a police officer on the corner of the Boulevard and Rochechouart Street must have also run through the mind of many of his colleagues. This Saturday afternoon in Paris, in the diverse and busy area of Barbès, a pro-Palestinian demonstration gathered between 5 and 10,000 protestors (depending on the time and location). This was despite the fact that the day before, the Parisian police had banned the protest with the Government’s consent. The aim of the ban was to prevent a potential “threat to public order” after an eventful week. In the end, the Government’s approach proved to be an indisputable disaster.

Warned of the continued call to protest confirmed the day before by organisers, the police put in place a vast grid system of surveillance. Between 2 and 3pm at the junction of Boulevards Barbès, Rochechouart and Magenta, the traffic became gradually blocked by lines of riot police. There were many young people and women amongst the first protesters, some of which had come from the banlieues and were wearing religious clothing. The slogans were all political, “Resistance, from Paris to Gaza!” “We are all Palestinians”, “Palestine will live, Palestine will win”. Occasionally some “Allah Akbar” could be heard, but sporadically, and only from one or two individuals. 

The tension was relative; young people approached the lines of police and a few last cars passed through the crowd. Then some young men climbed onto scaffolding to burn an Israeli flag (two more would be burnt before the clashes), before waving a flag of jihad. 

The arrival of a large procession from the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), shortly before 3pm, gave some order to the crowd. The Party had been delayed by several barricades surrounding the area and were joined by activists from Ensemble! (anti-capitalists from the Left Front) and the French Workers’ Communist Party (PCOF, (Maoist)). After discussion with the police, they organised a march along Barbès Boulevard, to the annoyance of some first arrivals who were more radical than the majority of the rally. By this point, the crowd had grown considerably.

As on last Sunday, the Union of Jews for Peace were part of the 500m long march, and the academic Julien Salingue (a Middle Eastern specialist) was glimpsed negotiating with riot police. Others included the leader of the NPA, Sandra Demarcq; Communist MEP Patrick Le Hyriac; Green 2nd arrondissement mayor, Jacques Boutault; Clementine Autain from the Left Front; and Yousef Boussoumah from the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic.

Next to keffiyeh and Palestinian flags, there were also several French flags being waved or draped around shoulders. “We have to show it as well, this flag,” explained a female student, before immediately yelling out a chant picked up by some of the crowd, “We are French, we have the right to protest!” There were also young couples with children, young anarchist activists and pensioners. 

The crowd was eclectic and evenly split between White, Arab and Black protestors. There were different sized veils and turbans as well as Guy Fawkes masks and a distribution of activist stickers from the BDS campaign (Boycott, Disinvest, Sanction), calling for the economic boycott of Israel. There were many discussions between those who didn’t want to be associated with political groups and those who regretted that more political groups weren’t present to swell numbers and give legitimacy to the movement. 

In Barbès, there were no Communist or Green flags, in any case none that were visible. An NPA activist acknowledged, “we’re taking it as it comes, but as the police don’t want to let us pass, we can only stay here, we’re not going to go into the smaller streets”. For him, “we definitely won’t give up demonstrating. It’s like for the Red Hats*, above all, these are the working classes who are protesting”.

Teargas before dispersal 
For a time around 3.15pm, the arrival of a procession of around 200 men in black t-shirts, some in gloves and helmets, worried the demonstrators already present. Like football hooligans, they clapped their hands to a chant (The LDJ, the LDJ, the LDJ is a c***, referring to the Jewish Defence League). They then sung a powerful rendition of the French national anthem, before carrying replica coffins through the crowd, as is often seen in Gaza.

Alarmed, some of the crowd wondered whether they were followers of Dieudonné or Soral (respectively a comedian and essayist and alleged anti-Semites), the more “traditional” protestors moved away and gathered a hundred metres away at the Chateau-Rouge metro station (next to the busy neighbourhood la Goutte d’Or). Thirty minutes later, these black t-shirts would be the start of the trouble. 

Many were fired up by the decision to ban the demonstration, which was taken as a humiliation, and linked to a change in the political agenda to align France with the position of the Hebrew state, led by Francois Hollande. “Israel the assassin, Hollande the accomplice” was by far the most heard chant until the first tear gas canisters were launched. Blocked by a new line of riot police, several pro-Palestinian activists, as well as the NPA’s security personnel, attempted to negotiate with the police to end the kettling and prevent the scene turning into something Thatcher would not have disapproved of. 

The tension grew quickly in front of the police barricade. The police stood still against the first throws of firecrackers, stuck in the legal impossibility of treating a static rally as protest, as it had been technically forbidden. As he was in the middle of the march, the author of this article didn’t witness the scene, but Willy Le Devin from the French daily Liberation recounted:

“Around 3.40pm, it was the start of the third-half… suddenly some extremely well prepared and organised groups started to break through the crowd to reach the riot police. They moved forward in a line, faces covered. It seemed that none had come to defend the Palestinian cause. Some wore the t-shirts of the Paris St-Germain football hooligans. Unusually, some security personnel spread out to prevent them from coming head-to-head with the police. At the beginning, it worked well. But some young people standing on a container, started to throw big firecrackers at the police. One, then two, and then three. The riot police responded with the first canisters of tear gas a bit before 4pm. From then on, the protest was over and the 18th arrondissement was transformed into a vast battlefield”.

The first canisters were launched and the gas spread out across the whole crowd - the classic method to disperse protests in large areas. With the small difference that the protest wasn’t dispersed (there was even a sit-in). As for evacuation routes, as the metro was closed, they took the form of small shopping streets, often blocked by other police barricades. The tiny streets of la Goutte d’Or turned into the main setting for the clashes.

The vast majority of the protestors continued on their route, some marching peacefully for hundreds of metres to the centre of Paris (Châtelet). Others arrived at the forecourt of Gare du Nord train station where over a thousand people who could not reach the main protests had gathered; others doubled back to the railway bridge in la Goutte d’Or, others still ended up wandering in small groups through Montmartre, the only possible escape towards the North-West of the capital.

National protest next Saturday?
The evening’s developments were broadcast live across news channels - a dark and sinister reminder of the origin of the banned Parisian rally. By 9pm, there had been 38 arrests and 14 police officers injured. Around Barbès junction several clashes dragged on until the end of the day, stone throwing against tear gas. Some bins and two cars were seen burning on the roadside. In a report, the organisers of the Parisian protest also took stock, “at least 20 demonstrators injured and suffering from respiratory problems, notably women and children”. They blamed police tactics:

“At Gare du Nord, the rally was calmer. Unsurprisingly, the police reserved more violent treatment for the residents of Barbès (which has a large population of North Africans), while the presence of numerous tourists at Gare du Nord seemed to favour relative restraint. This is a reminder of the darkest hours of the colonial era”. The statement concluded, “It was a political, if not ideological, Government decision to use disproportionate violence that created the conditions to threaten public order. As such, the Government carries complete responsibility.”

In the rest of France, except Sarcelles, all the demonstrations were authorised. There were more than 4,000 protestors in Lyon and Marseille, more than 1,500 in Saint-Etienne, Lille, Montpellier, Nantes and Strasbourg. In all, about 15 towns outside of the Parisian-region held protests. Without a single act of violence.

In their statement, the organisers addressed the President, “Mr.Hollande declared today, ‘Those who want to protest at any cost will accept responsibility for it”. By holding a massive rally, we have replied, “Those who want to exercise their fundamental democratic right at any cost, will not give in to your threats”.

They are already calling for “a national protest on Saturday at Place de la République”. As for the NPA, it is calling for “all the strength of the left and democrats, trade unions and political associations, to stand against repression and express an active solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people”.
Meanwhile, between Grenoble and Risoul, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was “out to lunch” at the Tour de France. He talked to a cyclist and to TV presenter Gerard Holtz about how thanks to the Tour de France he had “rediscovered confidence and optimism” and boasted of “the beauty of the scenery” which “give him the will to carry on”. Then, sounding more authoritative and war-like, “Law and order are essential in our country. We will not allow people to say anti-Semitic slogans about French Jews under any circumstance, because that is not what France is about. I want to tell our compatriots that we, the President, the Interior Minister and myself, are extremely determined to ensure respect for our republican values”.

In a gibe to his Prime Ministerial skills, Valls chose to visit the Tour de France the very day that his namesake the Spaniard Rafael Valls, chose to abandon the race. It would have been funny, were it not for the success of the peaceful protest in London, which contrasted starkly with the lamentable spectacle in Paris. 

*The Bonnets rouges were a 2013 multi-class (entrepreneurs, workers, petty bourgeois) protest movement in Brittany.