Inside a French Riot

french police

Amien Essif

The following is a personal account of a clash between French students and police and was written on March 10, 2011 in Montpellier, France.

“It’s the same thing every year,” said one of my native friends when the next morning I expressed a shock which I couldn’t articulate in broken French. “It’s a shame. Midnight is too early for a war in the streets.” In fact, as anyone will tell you, Montpellier’s carnival has become known for it’s violent exchange between police and youth. Some posters around town invited people (perhaps ironically) to come fight the police on Tuesday night, and the headline in the newspaper the next day announced that the carnival had degenerated into violence “once again.”

At around 7 p.m. the night before–Mardi Gras–a peaceful parade began in a park in the west of town known as Peyrou. Amassing disguised revelers, it continued on to the spacious Place de la Comedie where musical ensembles formed spontaneously in the open, and a young crowd danced and passed around uncorked wine bottles. Some students had their masks pulled up on their foreheads so they could smoke a cigarette. When I produced a bottle of wine from my coat, a passer-by warned me “Attention, la police.” But there were none around.

After nightfall, the procession of the disguised took to full carnival and funneled up the great rue de la Loge, into the vielle ville where, in front of a 13th century church, a bonfire of cardboard and wood crates seemed to build itself on the cobblestone square. There were a few fireworks, some theatrics. A guy climbed up a pillar to throw his arms to a cheering crowd, the drumming and singing continued.

The police, I don’t imagine, thought that the bonfire had built itself. Under the pretext of enforcing a couvre-feu a riot team was waiting for us. I was a little under the influence of an entire bottle of red wine, and must admit that the way I was dancing had not permitted me to notice the battalion. At around 11 p.m., though, there was a strange movement of the crowd. The circle around the fire broke open, the drummers moved down the square, and now our party was more like a wall against the fire, on the other side of which stood an intimidating group of French police in full riot garb: giant shields, black vests, boots, and gloves, thick helmets, clubs, other obscure devices which I couldn’t see through the flames and the dark.

I was certainly nervous as we faced down the police opposite the bonfire, but it seemed to me that the police were simply trying to push us away from our fire so they could extinguish it and maybe convince us to calm down a little.

Then someone threw a little glass Heineken bottle. Or maybe it was the police who made the first move. In any case, the peace was broken. The police descended, the crowd stampeded. Some were screaming, but there was also an echo of laughs perceptible through the sounds of hundreds of charging feet.

The carnival was over, everyone scattering down different alleys, some staying behind to build barricades out of trashcans, iron poster stands, café tables and anything heavy they could grab in their retreat.

The police had their own strategy. They would charge and then hang back, dodging flying bottles or blocking them with their shields. From time to time, they would toss a tear gas bomb into the crowd and in a few seconds we would scatter. Or they would just charge with their shields locked in front of them, like a wall of plastic that need only startle a few of us in order to trigger a stampede, moving the whole panicked crowd back a few blocks.

But the police’s motives weren’t limited to defending the peace. Citizen police wearing street clothes had been deputized as riot control and had only a bright yellow arm band to identify them. These guys were vicious, more eager to play dirty. Often, when revelers were trapped by the labyrinth of medieval streets, these deputies would rush in and attack with little display of discipline. Several times I saw them throw flash bombs—small projectiles which explode brightly and loudly yet can also wound with incidental shrapnel—into the middle of a small crowd that was already in retreat and thus needed no prodding.

Then it happened to me. I was running down an alley, attempting to distance myself from the police, and when I emerged in a larger street, I found myself in the no-man’s-land in between a group of deputies and a small group of students. As I ran toward the students, I was blinded by a flash on the ground just next to me and then began limping. When I finally found a place to sit down, I saw that my pants leg was dobbed with blood. I still don’t know what had struck me, but the wound was strange. It was very superficial yet very bloody.

I regrouped with my friend who had run ahead. We were both foreign exchange students, he from Germany and I from the US, and neither of us had much experience with riots. Especially not french youth riots, which hold many surprises for the acculturated. Fleeing from tear gas, we turned a corner and found the carnival still going on. A few drummers had assembled and around them a dancing circle.

And just beyond, the police.

This was after at least two people had been beaten with clubs and taken away in vans. But watching the carnival continue at the feet of a regrouping police battalion, it occurred to me that this was really a show to spite the police.

The riot is a game, in the same way that politics is a game. It is a ritual skirmish between the youth and the police, as old as the French Revolution or older, and it can only be a game because we knew very well that the police could massacre us, all of us, if they wanted. But then things wouldn’t go back to normal on Ash Wednesday.

A few of the drunkest or most militant rioters (though “rioters” might not be the proper word in the case of police agression) tried to break the rules, but were checked by internal referees. For example, some young guys, while building a barricade, began grabbing chairs and tables from a café patio as the patron chased them, cursing. But as soon as they tossed the furniture into the street, it was collected by some other carnivaliers and returned to to patio.

There is a cynical conclusion to all of this, that the violence which erupted this Mardi Gras night was worthless. Perhaps it was nothing more than a ritualized game for both the police and the rioters, resulting nevertheless in destroyed property, wounds, and an intensified misunderstanding between the French youth and the French state. To a cynic, it could give the impression that French students amuse themselves by getting drunk and throwing stuff at police, much like American students get drunk and go to football games.

This is not my conclusion, however. Certainly the Mardi Gras clash was a thrill and an exercise. But it was an exercise of dissent against a French police force whose authority has steadily increased under the direction of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former chief of police, now president, who is generally despised by the french youth for what they deem his “fascist” policy. The carnival riots are about five years old now, a phenomenon which coincides with the recent conservative shift in French politics. Just recently, Sarkozy and his political allies passed a new set of laws known as LOPPSI 2, wherein the French police and immigration officers are given more power to demand official documentation from suspicious persons while at the same time heightening video surveillance and internet censorship across the country. This set of laws is not subtle in targeting immigrants and dissidents in the name of national security.

The French youth, acting especially as members of the Internet generation, see this new legislation as a threat to their freedom, and it is their anger against the increasingly powerful French authority that incited violence against the police on Tuesday night.

Indeed, the riot did not produce a solution to the political struggle between those who seek national security through traditional means of police power, and those who see any increase of police authority as a decrease in public liberty. But what it did accomplish was to bring the conflict between the police and the French citizens into the open. When the fight is in the streets, it is obvious, and then solutions become necessary.

And in any case, this Mard Gras was French, almost patriotic in how French it was. But if it was patriotic, it was not in reverence to Sarkozy, but to the ideal of “liberté, egalité, fraternity,” to the glory of the revolutionaries of 1789, 1848, 1871, and of course to the spirit of la Resistence of World War II—always fighting their most important battles, it seems, in citizens clothes.

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