I think for any American studying abroad in Paris it’s obligatory to remark on the culture of social movements in France. Manifestations [protests] and grèves [strikes] are practically national pastimes. So much so that this tendency is frequently the butt of French jokes and jokes about the French – including France’s representation in Czech artist David Černý’s controversial Entropa piece.
The frequency with which lycéens [high school students] throw protests (like throwing a party…and skipping school at the same time) is certainly funny. It is equally frustrating how often the traffic on Metro and RER lines is perturbé [disrupted] due to grèves. It is nevertheless honorable that the French feel passionately enough about issues to take public action for change. Since the protest era of the lat 60s and early 70s, most Americans have become cynical and jaded (myself included…even at my young age). The French, while cynical and ironic in daily interactions, still seem to respect and privilege the art of the protest.
Although much different than the typical manifestations for workers’ rights or education reform (or against education reform, it’s often hard to tell), Paris has recently turned its focus to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Always a touchy subject, a recent pro-Palestinian demonstration on January 3 turned violent when protestors, among the more than 21,000 demonstrators present, took to burning cars, breaking store windows and looting.
Since then, protests have taken place each weekend as Parisians rush to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza.
When I received a warning in my inbox from the U.S. Embassy, advising that I avoid the pro-Palestinian demonstration that was to take place at 2:00 p.m. today in and around my quartier, I was more tempted to attend than discouraged from it. I did, however, have other plans for the afternoon and understood that in reality it’s best not to meddle with these types of things – especially in a foreign county AND especially one where racial and religious tensions are high.
On my way to the BiFi this morning, I did pass by part of the demonstration’s projected route. The C.R.S. vehicles lining Boulevard Montparnasse gave the normally lively and cheerful street an eerie vibe. On my short walk to the Raspail Metro station, I saw more C.R.S. vans and police cars than I could count. The authorities were clearly not taking any chances with the projected 15,000 “non-violent” demonstrators.
This scene immediately reminded me of October 17, 1961. On this oft-forgotten, sordid day in Paris’s history, Arabic-Franco tensions were infinitely higher. We were in the thick of the Algerian War, and the FLN’s presence in Paris was stronger than authorities would have liked. Likewise, Maghrébin [North African] immigrants lived in even worse conditions than today. The défavorisées [disadvantaged] banlieues were at this point literal bidonvilles [slums/shantytowns].
On October 17, 1961, a completely non-violent protest against a Parisian curfew directed solely at Algerians ended in tragedy when C.R.S. agents and police reacted severely and violently to stop the demonstration at all costs (Charles de Gaulle had given préfet of police Maurice Papon “carte blanche” to do so). Tens of thousands were arrested, hundreds were beaten and dozens of unlucky individuals were même [even] thrown into the Seine. Between 100 and 300 people were killed in the mayhem.
Thankfully today’s protest remained peaceful. But scenes of the present are haunted by the hidden truths of the past, and it is important for the French and foreigners alike to remember this tragic and sordid day that France tries so hard to forget.