Police march past a flaming barricade into Place d’Italie while the crowd jeers
France is burning
Words and photos by Brian Ng Edits by Lavender Au
25 October 2023
Tear gas smells like rubber; at least, the remnants of it does. I followed it around the first half of this year, tracking it along with ashes of bin fires, looking for scars on the road from barricades, like a big-game hunter to sniff out ragtag groups of protesters roaming the streets of Paris. These protests, initially against proposed pension reforms, and then against police racism, made the international news in dribs and drabs. Reports tended to lack nuance, consistently saying that the retirement age was being raised (instead of saying the minimum, which many people never qualified for before the reforms, making the reforms much worse); by chosen omission and by the unavoidable narrowness of camera lenses, protests were made to look like they blanketed cities, when they were just pockets; and basic facts weren’t picked up, such as how the Bordeaux town hall’s fire was set by far-right protesters taking an ill-timed stand against the region’s environmentally sustainable policies, not those protesting the pension reforms.
Those of us who’d moved to Paris were used to playing de facto tour guides, and added “safety officer” to our roles. In July, all my Paris-residing friends were being asked whether it was safe to come over. “You’re scaring me,” an American writer friend told me, when I said it was best to take a car back to where she would be staying — the day before she’d arrived, incendiary protests had broken out across France after police shot 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk dead in his car. I had advised her to take a car back to where she was staying, which was near the opera house, as it had already been the site of numerous battles.
The French police force is the only one in Europe allowed to use military-grade weapons on civilians. According to sociologist Sébastian Roché, French security forces kill, by use of bullets, 50 percent more than Germany’s and 377 percent more than Great Britain’s. A recent press release by some UN rapporteurs found “the lack of restraint in the use of force against members of civil society… profoundly worrying.” When I thought of my journalism in Paris, I never imagined I’d be a war reporter.
I’d moved to Paris in 2021, and a year into my life here, I was having coffee with a prominent English-language journalist who lives here too. She asked me if I’d ever thought of going along to protests. I tossed it off: There are just so many of them, and it was difficult for me to sell them: Most international outlets don’t care much about anything that doesn’t affect the global equilibrium, and most major outlets already have bureaus or usual writers when it comes to news reporting. Protests, until then, had been a rather staid affair during my time in Paris: It was just people walking up and down streets chanting — nothing of the magnitude of the Gilets Jaunes protests that had rocked the country a few years before, when the working class protested nationwide over the cost of living. The pension protests’ calm all changed on March 16 this year.
That day was when the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, was supposed to vote on the pension reforms, which hundreds of thousands of people (in Paris, let alone the rest of France) had been marching against semi-regularly since January. President Emmanuel Macron’s party, Renaissance (renamed six months beforehand), which had proposed the reforms, was still unsure whether it’d have enough votes, specifically from members of the Republican party, and chickened out of the vote. Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne showed up to the podium and announced, among jeers from fellow deputies (as National Assembly members are called, the equivalent of a member of the US House of Representatives), that the government was enacting article 49.3 of the constitution, which would effectively force the bill through without a vote. Deputies walked out of the chamber and building. The thumbs of the irate public revved the social media machine into turbo drive.
Within hours of the non-vote, thousands started gathering in the Place de la Concorde. They’d wanted to protest in front of the National Assembly building, but police had forced them over the bridge into the square; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”), the largest left-wing party, tried to lead the protesters back over, but was stopped; he disappeared soon after. Invites to join the protest were transmitted over Twitter, Telegram channels and WhatsApp group chats. Thousands more showed up. There was a sense of party at the beginning — the New York Times felt it important to note a food truck, selling ham sandwiches, had shown up — but as night fell, bonfires arose. Seeing photos of the gathering crowd, I hopped on a bike and hightailed my way over.
Firefighters put out trash fires on Rue de Richlieu, around the corner from the Palais Royal
Protesters light flares along a boulevard
Protests in France have largely followed a script: Put out an invite to as many people as possible (whether through the unions or on social media), have your backpacks searched by police as you exit the metro station (and get frisked if you’re Black or Brown) on the way to the starting position, then amble your way along the route to the destination. There, protesters stand peacefully and shout their slogans; police (who’re usually notified of the big protests) stand by for a few hours, until night falls and they deem it’s time to finish, so they fire a few warning shots to clear out the battle-shy, before encircling the remaining protesters and teargassing them into the metro station. These last few years, the police have torn up the script.
Most of it is to do with the Gilets Jaunes protests that mainly took place in 2018, which revolved around the working class’s feeling neglected (I’d say more here, but the aims were never that concrete and have continued shifting, including recently into anti-vaxxer territory). The Gilets Jaunes spanned the country, with many protests standing on roundabouts chanting in their yellow vests, but carnage was wrought: The most famous case being the defacing of the Arc de Triomphe, in what is called “Act III” in the French history books; the police took out people’s body parts — one journalist told me of seeing someone without an eye — and beat them mercilessly. The Paris police prefecture head was sacked because of Act III, and his successor, Didier Lallement, was chosen because of his tougher stance against protesters. Since then, police forces have been proactively trying to break and quell anti-government sentiment — even if they’re sanctioned — as efficiently as possible.
Armoured gendarmerie get into formation along Rue de Rivoli as a protest advances
On the same day, armoured police back down the road slowly, while members of the press position themselves ahead of the march
Police face outwards from a group of kettled protesters on Rue Amelot, while other protesters chant “liberate our comrades!”
Near the end of a protest, police line up across Boulevard Richard Lenoir to deter any more pockets of protesters
I experienced the police’s provocation first-hand when I tailed Brut videojournalist Rémy Buisine for BuzzFeed News on the union-organised April 6 protest. The protest had just passed Montparnasse train station (not yet halfway to the designated end point) when it encountered a line of armoured police, standing with their shields up. Buisine and I were in the front section, where non-affiliated protesters milled about. A few people yelled at the police for not being allowed to continue walking, but that is standard at these sorts of affairs. What was unexpected was how quickly the tensions were inflamed by the police. Within ten minutes of Buisine’s and my arrival at the frontlines, a warning shot was fired. Those at the front who didn’t want to battle started fleeing; members of a decentralised left-wing group called the Black Bloc made their way forwards, getting into position to protect the protesters. In my article, I mentioned how one banged a metal sheet on his way forwards. What I didn’t have space to include was the girl (she was either in her late teens or early twenties) who slowly nudged her way forwards, saying “excusez-moi”with a tiredness that should’ve come from spending all night cramming for an exam, not from battle-weariness. I left out how the front union float’s contingent all wore protective gear — helmets, hermetically sealed goggles (which were sold out at an army surplus store Buisine and I had visited a few days before), and gas masks, as well as probable body armour — while they stood still, holding a rope that demarcated the non-fighters. I didn’t mention how, when I got away from the crowd, and wound through the side streets, I saw multiple phalanxes of police in riot gear not just marching, but jogging in, to close off the exits. I left just in time: The first teargas canister was fired seven minutes after the warning shot. When I reached the Luxembourg gardens, I saw fire trucks — as firefighters in France also work as paramedics — lined outside.
When on retreat back to my apartment to wait out the fighting, I found the back half of the march, which had split off for another route. It was obvious the police at that sanctioned protest were under orders to break it up, to not let the whole cortege arrive in one piece.
It is under these conditions — when the French people’s right to protest is stymied — that “wild” or “spontaneous” protests break out. The police have claimed these are illegal, banning protests across most of central Paris at one point, only to have the bans overturned by the courts — this has happened recently, when the Paris police prefecture tried to ban pro-Palestinian protests. The police thus rely on intimidation tactics that go beyond their presence, from kettling protesters (surrounding them and preventing them from leaving, a tactic that’s a legal grey area) to actively shooting teargas at protesters and then truncheoning them. At one point, when blowing on whistles and banging pots and pans became the protest aid du jour, they got banned — they were confiscated before a major football game at the Stade de France. Workarounds popped up so that people could still sound these symbols from their phones.
Just over a week after the protest in which I followed Buisine, on April 14, police closed off all streets leading to the Notre Dame cathedral as Macron was visiting and protesters had attempted to chant in the square outside at 10am. Later that night, the Constitutional Council gave its decision to allow the pension reforms to pass into law. I was at Hôtel de Ville, where the offices for the Paris municipality are, as the gathered thousands heard the announcement over a piddly speaker on a parked truck. The crowd stayed quiet. At the same time, municipal workers mounted official banners declaring the Parisian government’s solidarity with the social movement. One activist group started jumping up and down while chanting. Seven minutes after the announcement, a trash can burst aflame. Soon after, a woman lit some flares and waved them around. The chants rose and fell, whac-a-mole style; I noticed a photographer standing on the same ledge as me had blue-paint splatter on his shoes, which meant he had been at the previous day’s protest; I found out the guy on my right was a protest video journalist for a small left-wing outlet.
Thousands pack into Hôtel de Ville in the early evening, awaiting the Constitutional Council’s decision
As the rain sets in, some protesters get onto the fence in front of the Paris municipality building and light flares
Other protesters climb onto the central Olympic rings in front of the municipal building and attach their banners with duct tape
About half an hour after the crowd had found out about the council’s decision, people were quietly handing out slips of paper. They said, “This time, we won’t go home, but take the streets all night! In case we’re dispersed tonight, find each other somewhere else, away from the police.” In all-caps, it said to meet at Saint-Lazare station.
Another 20 minutes or so later, some protesters started leaving the square, snaking their way onto Rue de Rivoli, one of the main arteries of Paris that runs parallel to the Seine. The journalist who was standing with me leapt off and started filming. I gave it a few minutes before joining the spontaneous march. It seemed to be going fine for a bit as we walked westward, towards the Louvre, but the tide suddenly changed direction. I hadn’t even gotten that far; I was basically across the street from the square. I turned with the mass, as others around me started panicking, pushing and running. The parade turned up Rue des Archives, a narrow street that runs through the gaybourhood. People started dragging poles and metal sheets — from roadworks and construction nearby — and threw them on the ground as makeshift barriers to slow down the police who are most certainly on our tail. Restaurant workers and diners watched as the crowd sang protest anthems.
The crowd in the wild protest turns back after realising police are teargassing ahead
The crowd has turned up Rue des Archives where residents peer out down from their windows
I split off several blocks farther north, where the street looked too packed for my liking (in case police were to pincer in from the other end), so I popped off to go around the block. People who were clearly tourists were standing agog at that corner; I heard an American couple wondering aloud whether they could head down the street, in the counter-flow. Feeling bad for their innocence, I broke cover and told them that the police had been teargassing the main road, that it would be only a matter of minutes before that street would be hit, that it’d probably be best for the tourists to just go back to their hotel for the night in case street battles continued late into the night.
That corner was teargassed five minutes afterwards. I stayed and watched as the cloud smothered the street, creeping its way up the sandstone walls. I stayed too long and inhaled the gas.
A merchant reorganises his 1664 beers, which were used in a pension reform protest slogan: “16–64 is a beer, not a career”
The same merchant earlier in the day, carting his wares along Rue de Rivoli
Another merchant working Rue de Rivoli — they are usually people of colour, often immigrants
A food stall at Invalides before a protest selling merguez sausages and chicken
Two bike-mounted food stands still working after the masses have left Place de la République
There were two protests planned for the day after the Hôtel de Ville protest that turned wild (and where I warned some tourists). One, held outside a prefecture building in the 19th arrondissement, was organised by deputies. It had barely 150 people and was calm; children played in the playground nearby.
The other was a call to meet at the Saint-Lazare train station. When I arrived just before 7pm, it was teeming with police breaking up anything that mildly looked like a protest. It was expected, though, as protesters had been out in force the night before (though most of the action had wrapped up by 10pm). But some hardy protesters still hung around the station. I linked up with some veteran photo and video journalists who specialise in shooting protests; we waited and watched. At 7.03pm, the protesters started moving to the metro. We followed.
The plan was to head to the prefecture protest; judging by the unorganised scrolling, it was obvious these protesters weren’t connected to the others. On the train platform, the protesters sang the “on est là!” protest song: “We’re here! We’re here! Even if Macron doesn’t want us to be, we’re here! For the honour of workers, and for a better world, even if Macron doesn’t want it, we are here!” Inside the carriage, call-and-response shouts of “ACAB”(pronounced by the French as “ah-kaaah-buh”) carried on, as well as other protest chants; several passengers joined in. At some point, someone figured out the prefecture protest was on the move; we changed trains at République and emerged at Laumière station. As we exited, one protester spray-painted over a security camera. We walked in the vague direction to where the others were, asking for help from a member of the public outside the arrondissement’s town hall.
When we eventually met up with the others, near the Crimée train station, there were cheers. The deputies who were at the initial demonstration were no longer there. Someone yelled, “to Stalingrad!” and the group moved once again. We turned off the boulevard, only four minutes after merging, as we’d seen eight CRS vans ahead. As the group walked down the street, some of the protesters pulled the metal temporary barriers from the sidewalks and pushed over trash bins, hauling them into the centre of the street. There was no time to set anything on fire. Three minutes after changing course, just as we crossed over the canal, someone shouted, “THEY’RE COMING!” We ran.
The reason the group’s demeanour changed so rapidly was because, instead of seeing CRS officers on the other side of the canal, we had seen the BRAV-M.
The BRAV-M police unit was established by Lallement shortly after he took up his role as Paris’s police prefecture head in 2019. The name stands for “brigade de répression de l'action violente motorisée” — “motorisée” because of how the unit rides in pairs on motorcycles (there are always 18 pairs, followed by a pair of firefighters). Its officers wear full armour all the time— the only unit to do so — and almost never take off their helmets; their tinted face-shields are usually flipped down. When they approach protesters, it is not uncommon for people to play or sing Star Wars’ stormtrooper theme.
Their appearance means there is a good chance trouble will come. They do not follow the cycle of “charge, retreat, repeat” that the CRS and the gendarmerie (a police unit and an army branch that usually patrol protests — for ease, they’ll continue to be collectively called “police” in this article). Unlike the CRS and the gendarmerie, the BRAV-M have no training in “maintaining order”. They are known to sprint at protesters, hurdling over barricades, swinging their truncheons and beating people indiscriminately. They use tear gas liberally, forever staging a dramatic entrance. Occasionally, they’ll shoot rubber bullets, which release glaring flashes of light and bursts of tear gas — it is these that have caused the most serious injuries.
BRAV-M failing to be inconspicuous around a corner of Place de la Nation because of their helmets
BRAV-M start jogging up a side street towards the large intersection outside the Saint Ambroise church
BRAV-M officers chill next to Rue de Rivoli while members of the public dodge past them
That’s why, when we saw the BRAV-M running for us, I ducked into a shop entranceway, shoving my camera back under my sweatshirt. I deliberately didn’t look like the protesters — I’m not in my early twenties anymore, for one, and I always deliberately dress to look like someone who’s out for dinner in the area, or, like at the most recent Concorde protest about the youth’s slaughter, like a tourist.
I have this exit strategy in place because I neither want to get truncheoned nor arrested. Especially not by the BRAV-M: I don’t particularly feel like trying to get a friend to contact a lawyer to get me out (nor do I want to pay for one; as I’m freelance, the only time I was kind of covered was when I was reporting for BuzzFeed News). A report by the French Human Rights League said “the BRAV-M often seems to react hot-headedly, without general consideration to the situation, without prioritising soothing tensions and guaranteeing citizens the possibility to exercise their rights.” Although people are only supposed to be detained if they’re caught clearly committing a crime capable of imprisonment (simply protesting certainly does not count), the BRAV-M do not care about this.
It is worth commenting on which organisations feed the BRAV-M squad. Members of neither the CRS nor the gendarmerie can transition in; BRAV-M members come from the CI (intervention companies of Paris) and the BAC (anti-criminal brigade, part of the national police force) (the French love their abbreviations if you couldn’t already tell). Both are tasked with “maintaining order” but do not receive special training for it. “This is” the Human Rights League report says, “without doubt, one of the reasons that leads to its exercising greater violence.”
The BRAV-M thinks itself above the law: In addition to their outrageous acts of physical violence, its officers have been caught on tape hurling racist insults at innocent youths and its members regularly wear balaclavas and don’t have their identification numbers visible (both against regulations). Its operations are so opaque that interest in it is high, such that France’s most-watched news shows invited what it thought were real BRAV-M officers on (the leader still pretends to be a BRAV-M officer on Instagram, though the police itself has publicly denounced him). Its officers think themselves heroes: In the police prefecture’s magazine, Liaison, the section dedicated to the unit is called “braver les élements violents” (braving the violent elements). Similarities have been drawn between it and the voltigeurs, which used to also be a police unit on motorcycles and also terrorised citizens; in 1986, the voltigeurs famously killed Malik Ouussekine, a youth of North African descent, not at all dissimilar to the killing in July this year. The weak delineations made between the two are laughable: Lallement, who ordered them into existence, said the difference is that the BRAV-M can only be violent on foot (BRAV-M officers can’t truncheon from motorcycles, unlike the voltigeurs); a BRAV-M lieutenant, in a propaganda video filmed by the police force, says that the BRAV-M is“nothing alike”: They have to deal with current-day Parisian traffic, see?
Since October 2020, when the BRAV-M was made a permanent unit (it used to be temporarily assembled for particularly intense protests), its presence is now expected at protests, though a neo-Nazi protest a few months ago had none such issues, even having a police escort. Its existence and actions have concerned some left-wing politicians, three of whom launched an official petition on March 23 to put a bill forward to dissolve the unit. The petition only ran for less than two weeks as the law commission was sitting — and only considers petitions twice a year. In that short time, it gained over 260,000 signatures, which was enough for the commission to have to consider it (100,000 needed), but not enough for it to go straight to the National Assembly (500,000). It is one of only a few petitions to ever get that many signatures. The commission, predictably, killed it.
One of the deputies leading this charge is Antoine Léaument, a 34-year-old serving his first term. Unlike many other politicians, he did not come from a rich family; he did not go to a grande école, a system of private universities that have competitive entry (which is why the bourgeoisie doesn’t look favourably upon public universities, like the Sorbonne, which take pretty much anyone) and whose purpose is to get their students into high-up positions in politics and business. He got into politics by making YouTube videos, and eventually working as the digital campaign manager for Mélenchon during his presidential campaign (and who got the most votes as a left-wing candidate). During the colder months, Léaument is easily identifiable by his black coat with its mandarin collar. For a while, he was also the only deputy I had seen regularly on the frontlines of protests; after I interviewed him at a protest outside a garbage incinerator during the garbage collectors’ strike that ran as part of the pension reforms protests, others started showing up more often, curiously (though this is based solely on my own recollection).
At the time I interviewed Léaument, the petition had 70,000 signatures. “It’s enormous,” he said. “It’s not easy to sign as the National Assembly’s website is complicated.” But why single out the BRAV-M? “It’s a police unit whose sole action is to be violent,” Léaument said. He explained the unit’s acronym as standing for the repression of violent actions, but “it’s the opposite: Who does the violent actions? It’s the BRAV-M,” he said.
The BRAV-M are the only ones using undue violence. In the dredges of one day-long protest, Léaument and two of his colleagues went down — they say they wanted to observe police actions; some journalists I was with murmured that they’re always around for publicity (the politicians jumped on a little bit on Brut’s TikTok livestream, which was being watched by millions all over the world during the biggest protests); what I did see in-person was their continued intervention when police illegally kettled protesters. While Léaument watched the police’s approach to the flaming barricade made of overturned bins (where I was), the police shot teargas canisters; one hit the tree he was standing under, even though it was not a tall in the direction nor near the barricade; the sparks and canister itself hit his arm on its descent. At another protest a week later, Léaument, along with some colleagues, stayed with protesters who’d been kettled on the steps of the Bastille opera house. The police — not the BRAV-M — pushed their way forwards with their shields, tightening the encirclement, and, in the process, beat them. One of those beaten was Léaument, whose mint-green helmet was knocked off by a truncheon; others got in the way to protect him. This was unexpected, as he was wearing his official tricolour sash, not to mention that he should’ve been well-known to all law enforcement by this point. At later protests, where Léaument and his colleagues ordered police to release kettled protesters, they had bodyguards.
There has always been an unspoken, invisible barrier between those marching and passersby: That’s why French people look rather unfazed in pictures, dining and chatting while the streets outside are aflame. Protesters rarely go into restaurants and bars to take cover. This separation no longer exists. Restaurants and bars are now frequently collateral damage in gassing: Often poorly ventilated, patrons run to the far corners to no avail; in one of Buisine’s livestreams, he offered some eyewash to some diners who’d been gassed. The metro used to be a safe zone, too, but BRAV-M, in the last weeks, have been caught on camera hunting and losing a single protester, much to the amusement of tourists here for the rugby world cup.
The police’s recent more forceful tactics is well-exemplified by the bar Bonjour Madame. A self-proclaimed feminist and queer bar (there are few bars that call themselves “queer” in Paris; there are many that are “gay” ie geared towards men), it is popular with a young crowd who go there to hang out and attend talks. It is on a street full of restaurants popular with the trendy, youngParisian set who live in the area, and is pretty much always tranquil. The street is also a block away from a common major protest route. That’s why, after March 28’s major protest had wound up, a bunch of people stood outside it drinking and smoking. At one point, some of the patrons yelled “ACAB” at passing police at the protest’s conclusion.
Just before the day ticked over, a police car sped down the one-way street and stopped outside the bar. Officers exited the car and grabbed a young man who was standing on the footpath, then dragged him into the car and hurtled off, the man’s friends pounding on the car to try to stop it from leaving. The driver hit the gas. As the police left, they threw tear gas at the bar’s entrance; two people fainted.
The police targeted the bar again in May, during the day on a Wednesday. Twenty-five officers of various departments showed up and intimidated patrons, milling about until they found a vague administrative reason to close it down, telling the bartenders to clear it out immediately. “It’s not trivial that this is happening a week before Pride month,” one patron who filmed it said to France’s 20 Minutes. “I find it hard to believe it’s a simple routine check,” she said about the prefecture’s excuse, considering no other establishment on the street had been entered. As the bar wasn’t allowed to sell alcohol, it stayed closed for an undetermined amount of time as it’d be operating at a loss; a crowdfunding campaign raised over €20,000 from over 700 contributors. The bar was only able to reopen two months later, in late July, and had to skip Pride month (June).
Hundreds of thousands can show up to protests, completely packing large roads
Some groups have become symbols, like the “Rosies” who dress up as Rosie the Riveter and dance along the parade route
People gather at the statue in the centre of Place de la Nation — many are dressed in the Black Bloc uniform of all black
Boulevard Haussmann is usually full with its three lanes for cars and two cycle lanes
As a freelance reporter new-ish to France (I’ve been here for almost two years), I’ve been learning its history on the fly. In my various pieces on the protests, I’ve found there are always past protests for comparison — similar routes, similar causes under another government; even the fights with police have several examples, not just the famous May 1968 protests I’d originally known about. Protest culture is so strong in this country that the major protests gain names — they’re all documented on French Wikipedia too. It is because France is a strong Western democracy with such a history of social movements that the rest of the anglophone world pays attention. At the height of the protests, I saw reporters from CNN and NPR, as well as TV crews from Italy and China. But, because of the way international affairs reporting is run, it is only really these vociferous peaks that get fully reported. International media is not documenting the rise in police violence and brutality in France; it is not questioning why this is being ordered by Macron and his government.
It is disappointing considering many of the anglophone world’s largest newspapers have bureaus in Paris. The New York Times’ is the largest, but yet only reported on Salomé Rio, who was assaulted by a police officer while being arrested without just cause, more than a week after she’d made the French media rounds and had become a symbol of the pension reform protests. What was called the “affaire Hedi” by French media, about a 22-year-old man being shot by a rubber bullet at close range (causing him to need a part of his skull removed), lasted weeks at the top of French headlines, and investigations into the officers involved showed complaints from the public about their violence had already been lodged. Yet not a peep was reported by Bloomberg, the Financial Times, Guardian, New York Times, Times of London, Wall Street Journal, nor the Washington Post, all of whom have a bureau or reporter based in Paris regularly publishing articles. The veteran French journalists who specialise in protests told me I was the only anglophone one showing up with some consistency.
One issue international outlets, predictably, are covering constantly is the Olympics, which is coming to Paris next year. Its rings have stood outside Hôtel de Ville, the Paris council building, for months; improvements to the city are underway, from the new surveillance machinery to the cleaning of the Seine; little by little, the city’s sandstone buildings are being scrubbed, the frontiers between the accumulated blackish grime and the golden stone apparent on statues and walls, revealing some ideal of Paris that has never really existed.
Macron is ecstatic that he gets to host the Olympics during his time (French law means presidents only get to serve two four-year terms). His legacy is important to him; he’s seemingly wanting the phrase “brought in sweeping economic reforms”on his Wikipedia when he leaves office — the pension reforms that people protested about and which he had forced through the National Assembly are part of it, even though the savings from raising the minimum pension age are negligible. Left-wing protesters characterise him as someone who wants to be king — chants during the two nights of pension reform protests at Place de la Concorde included ones referencing how the people executed the last French king, Louis XVI, on that spot; that they would do the same to Macron.
People applaud an effigy of Macron that rises out of a bin
A common motif, expressed here in pasted graffiti, comparing Louis XVI and Macron
Place de la République’s statue given a vest by protesters — here, calling for Macron’s resignation
Statues are also often graffitied during protests, like Place de la République’s here
The view of Macron as an authoritarian leader is growing in France. In early July, Macron and interior minister Gerald Darmanin (who’s in charge of the police) visited Paris police late at night — their explicit support of the police’s handiwork is implied. Police in Marseille and other parts of France took collective sick leave in protest of how the policeman charged with assaulting Hedi was held in custody; a crowdfunding campaign raised €1.6million for the policeman is being investigated. It is not unusual to see internet commentators revelling in police violence, cheering them on for going after protesters. Multiple police officers have been found to show far-right affinities, some wearing insignia on their uniform while on duty. It is not just that the police is acting as an independent militia, but one with a strongly fascist targeting, much as its spokespeople and leaders deny it.
On May 8, the day France celebrates the end of WWII, Macron rode down the Champs-Élysées as part of his ceremonial duties, except the road was silent: all people had been cleared out. The Arc de Triomphe, which sits at the western end of the boulevard, and its defacing during Act III, is why the “forces of order” are jittery about the boulevard: Protests, however small, are always put down quickly there; on protest livestreams (now a TikTok genre in France), people regularly comment a time to meet there (though people rarely show up because of how quickly the police’ll be upon them). So, when protesters succeed in breaching the police cordons, like on April 13, it’s a major event — though not important enough for the major anglophone publications to mention.
To protest now, in any way that could garner even a largeish group, means the likelihood of repression — protests were banned because of the government’s pro-Israel stance, after all, and they were banned in Cannes during the film festival. The current model of circulating invitations days before on all the social media platforms is changing in response: The invitation for the Concorde protest about Nahel Merzouk’s assault made its way mainly through Telegram channels and WhatsApp groups only hours before it happened; it had barely any airtime on Twitter. Protesters are vowing to not let next year’s Olympics go ahead peacefully, but it seems more and more that they won’t have a chance: France’s “forces of order” will have smothered their fire.