A street level account by a participant in the ongoing movement against the new French labour law, written in May 2016.
I am a waitress. At the moment I work as an extra in a restaurant that only serves eggs, since I couldn’t get anything better. That means exactly that I am extra, completely dispensable. This means I have ‘free time’ but also means I am broke. It makes for a hierarchy inside my workplace, since often I get the worst, small tasks, my presence facilitates the other workers’ breaks, whereas I am often dismissed before the time when I would be entitled to a legal, paid break. Sometimes my employers call me in for 2 hours and send me away again. The journey takes 1 hour in total, and luckily I am good at fraudé the metro, otherwise I would pay 2/5 of my hourly wage getting there and back. So far I have worked there just two or three days a week, and my only other source of income is childcare ‘in English’, i.e playing with as much energy as possible with young children for an hour, or two hours at a time. I am often astounded when parents, who themselves work, often as academics in the university, come home and say ‘did she start to speak in English?’, as if one hour in my presence would have magically transformed their four year old’s linguistic capacities. Still, I nod, smile, lie, say ‘a bit’, since I don’t want my services seem ineffectual. Last time I looked after my favourite student she dressed up in her mother’s high heels and we spent the day drawing pigs and throwing teacups in the floor “I don’t wanna work! I wanna rabbit!” she said, jumping up and down on the sofa.
As for my job as an extra, I am not sure that my employers have actually declared me, although I have asked for it, and since I don’t yet have a número secú, my badly paid hours are probably not contributing at all to my as yet non-existent social security file. The social security say it is the responsibility of my employers, and my employers say it is my responsibility. The first day I worked at this particular job it was Mayday, there was a huge manifestation elsewhere in the city where many arrests were made, and I was told afterward that I should have been paid double for working on a holiday. Instead the boss, who is retired from the music industry, ushered me into the small side street next to the restaurant, which serves just egg brunch-dishes at a mere €25 per meal, and pressed €60 into my hand for my 7 and a half hour’s work, as some kind of special treat. Actually this is completely illegal as it comes out as far less than the SMIC (minimum wage), which is €9.67/hour.
Before this I worked as an English teacher on a salarie ocassionel, which means you have no guaranteed hours, and are paid according to how much work you are able to get and the agency take a large cut. I became unenthusiastic about the job, which required so much preparation and admin, and often involved large travelling distances for one or two hours of work at a time, which drove my wage down to way below the SMIC. Unlike most young French people, because I am not French, I don’t have RSA or other benefits yet, so I have survived on cash work. This teaching job gave me only just enough for my rent and nothing more, since students (business men) kept cancelling. I left it at the beginning of the social movement, quite by accident, as one day, I guess it was in late February, there were lycées bloqués and an extremely spirited and tempestuous un-notified manifestation sauvage ahead of a union march, in Nation, and I decided to call in sick and never went back. Indeed, this kind of strike, one that is not formally collectivised, is the character of many ‘strikes’ that have been taken by friends through March, April and May. It has been common to hear people on the demonstrations relating that they were taking the day off sick, or even, if they had a sympathetic boss, had declared them selves on strike. Just as the lecturers of Paris 8 have, for the most part supported the student-strike by unilaterally awarding students a good grade of 16/20 across the institution, many sympathetic doctors have similarly provided sick notes. Completely by accident, I then found myself completely unemployed for the riotous month of April, since it was also school holidays. *
I’m sure that the conditions of waitressing (that is: running up and down stairs with heavy, hot plates piled high with food that customers do not eat, and is priced at three times your wage; being yelled at on repeat by a coked-up boss; cleaning, re-laying tables with this or that particular fork; finding yourself sympathetic to customers in the face of employers; having no guarantee of hours; sometimes receiving little in the way of tips; having no break despite the fact that it’s the law; the kitchen staff all being people of colour, the waiting staff being mostly white; the boss being disorganised and the waiting staff being verbally abused, the boss, for example, throwing a plate at one of the cooks so it smashes on the floor at his feet) haven’t changed since for example the 1970s. Indeed there is nothing extraordinary about this kind of work, and it’s not worse than many other kinds of harder labour. Still, I relay these details of my own employment situation to explain, that while the huge union mobilisation addresses the famous French social security and stable post war work schemes which the Loi du Travail will attack,for many people of my age, or indeed for strangers who do not yet have access to benefits or social security, the consequences of the Loi du Travail are already mostly in place. There are numerous kinds of contracts which lie outside of stability. Indeed, this week it seems that the issue of who takes the tête de cortége, is at once a question of the support or condemnation of private property damage, as well as one of who is allowed to represent the movement. The taking over of the tête also appears as a demand for recognition of non unionised kinds of work.
May 26th (Paris: Thursday, Manifestation)
The oil strikes and blockades, which are now being reported more in the international press, have been ongoing since Thursday 19th, and with increasing strength. On Thursday we heard it was not possible to get cash or oil in Rennes, since the ATMs were smashed during the manifestation, and the refineries were on strike. This is an explicit case in which the actions of casseurs support the actions of a strike. Every day there has been news of another refinery blocked, a new one evicted. They are often reoccupied. Road blockades are too many to count. The headlines suggest that the union, the CGT, has the power to block the country, and Manuel Valls has reproached them for the same crime. On Tuesday Minister Bruno Le Roux (the leader of the Parti Socialiste inside parliament) seemed to move on the law, saying it could be modified, but head of FO Jean Claude Mailly, wrote back with the minimal demand of retraction. On thursday morning, a senior CGT member reported having received personal and intimidating text messages from a government minister.
Videos from elsewhere in France show gas workers singing antipolice songs at lines of gendarmerie “the police are paid for by our mothers, to kill our brothers, the police are paid for by our… we will never be police”, linked here . The longer that refineries remain blocked, the more chance there is that they will have to close down all together, since it is a health and safety concern to keep them running without workers. Tuesday 24th, 1/3 of gas stations were in complete or partial penury, according to Le Parisien, 6/8 refineries were stopped or functioned only partially, petrol boats were blocked in Marseilles, there was a call for a strike on the SNCF with 10% of members already striking. These strikes linked here, are, additionally, ongoing or about to commence in Paris . By Thursday 26th, 1/5 of gas stations nationally were without gas according to Le Monde’s live feed, 40% of gas stations in Paris were having trouble obtaining gasoline, and indeed, one in the 19eme read PAS DE GASOIL in 1m tall green felt tipped letters. The pickets had casualties too, in Cherbourg a unionist was killed on his motorbike on the way to a picket, whilst on another blockade a protester was injured being run over by a truck driver.
Thursday was counted as the 8th of grand day of mobilisation against the Loi du Travail, meaning that there were large mobilisations across the country, union marches, accompanied by strikes and blockades. The police estimate for the number of protesters for the whole of France was 180 000 whilst the CGT said it stood at 300 000 (Le Monde). In Paris, lycées Voltaire and Montaigne were blocked again, along with the industrial zone of the Porte of Gennevilliers (from 8h30-9h20). A manifestation walked from Bastille to Nation (a deliberately short route). As with last Thursday’s protest, the bloc autonome (non-union affliated block), which has been renamed the tête de cortège was large, full of everyone – black bloc and lycéens. The CGT had already started walking when we got there, presumably to stop the non-affiliated sections of the march from taking the head.
Sections of this tête break off, break stuff, including the glass of bus shelters, the glass of moving billboards, the glass of shop fronts, but it seems only because it is glass, although some breakings are accompanied by anticapitalist chants. The rest of the crowd call to each other to wait, applaud when things are broken, and protect each other. They have a quiet solidarity with those more active, masked sections of the march, contradicting what is said against casseurs in the press. At one point the march tails to the right, presumably for an action, but after letting thousands through the gendarmerie try to form a kettle. Everyone boos and everyone is defiant this time, they walk forward, their arms raised, saying free our comrades in the imperative tense. The police push them back, gas them, but the whole of the march is there. As people are gassed, others take over, hands up. Everyone hates the police, the crowd chants, moving forward again. The police push back, beat people, use pepper spray. People reel, recover. Ahead you can’t see anything through the smoke. Later I hear that there were thousands crushed in to this space and the tear gas and disengagement grenades caused several protesters to go on fire, since the missiles landed on pieces of clothing. The crowd advances saying cassez-vous, (fuck off). Eventually the cops are defeated, give up, let everyone go. Everyone comes back in a rush, crying, injured, and the march continues.
The rest seems to be without police. More is smashed, including a skoda shopfront, which people get inside. This is all done under the watchful gaze of a high definition camera operated by an RG (French intelligence service) pretending to be a journalist, on a balcony, and as a few members of the Cheminots pass, saying casseurs, collabos (breakers, rioters, you collaborate with the state). The graffiti along the walls says things like 1789: les casseurs prennent la Bastille! (1789 the rioters/breakers take Bastille) and vivre, sans temps (to live without time) and enfin une manif qui se passe bien (in the end, the march went well). At one point an Emmaüs shop (a kind of large thrift store with cheap furniture and slightly too expensive clothes) is under threat. One section of the autonomous bloc argues with the rest – not Emmaüs! it is a shop, we understand, which caters for the poor. So the black bloc stand in front of it and everyone claps.
Nation is again a half nasse, a violent playpen: the police have cordoned half off it off using these transportable barricades. They are metal and are often used to block whole streets ahead of demonstrations. Every third manifestation or so, they seem to use them. I wonder how they transport them, since they are like large decorative screens that you might get dressed behind were they not made of blue mesh. A multi-coloured phoenix, made of cardboard, which has been there throughout the march, is emblazoned with the words à l’assaut du ciel. Marx’s letter to Kugelmann, 12 April 1871, re the commune: ‘…ces parisiens montant à l’assaut du ciel’ – ‘these Parisians storming heaven’. It goes up in flames, but is reported in Le Parisien as a ‘burning shopping trolley’. It has fake money in its jaws. The police have the perimeter of a half moon of the square and moreover the rest of the cortège has not arrived yet. People, standing on the grassy banks, on the floors, on beds of roses, on the square, throw things at the police. For a moment the sky is full of stuff, flying at random, then the gas comes back. The BAC (undercovers) come in, steal a random boy, everyone runs at the BAC, they come back with iron bars in their hands. It is reported that earlier that two of these undercovers were chased out of the demonstration, and that one got his gun out and pointed it at a protester. The square was again gassed, leagues of riot police charged, from one direction, from the next.
May 18th - 24th (Paris: the affair of the burning police car)
After Wednesday the 18th’s demonstration, as part of which a police car was burnt, 5 people were arrested and had their houses searched. They seemed to have been chosen at random, and this choosing was justified by the fact that they’d received a ‘prohibition notice’ forbidding them from attending Tuesday (17th) morning’s protest. This notice was cancelled on Tuesday morning and was no longer active. One was released after being detained for 1 day, and the remaining four were presented to the judge on Saturday, accused of:
- attempted homicide
- wilful violence toward someone of public authority
- damage to public property
- participation in an armed gathering.
The severity of the accusations seemed to have been also influenced by the directive of Minister of Defence Bernard Cazeneuve, who demanded the harshest sentence possible for those involved, after describing his feelings:
“I found it extremely shocking to see individuals around, documenting the scene with cameras, without moving or helping, as if it were a normal state of affairs. I will have an extreme difficulty to consider that behind those hoards of barbarians something that resembles humanity still exists”
The four, seemingly arbitrarily selected, were granted a period of a few days before going to the judge, but were sent to prison anyway, and were held until three were released on Tuesday evening. Lawyers said publicly that the case rested on an empty folder, and that the four were being targeted at random, because of their individual records. The only evidence in the case was to be a testimony from one RG (French intelligence services). Indeed, the prefecture of police released a statement on Thursday detailing that the four were ‘known to them from antifascist groups’, as if this were, in itself a crime. Three were released on bail on the night of Tuesday 24th, the police union are up in arms.
May 9th - 19th (Manifestations, Paris)
This will be a collection of notes, written by a waitress, that attempts to put together experiences from Paris and from the rest of France during the mouvement contre le loi travail. It will begin to piece things together restrospectively dating from March – May, as well as speaking of the present moment.
The previous two weeks were just as enervating as the ones preceding, if not more, since the French police have newly discovered nasses (net, like fishing net), also known as ‘being kettled’. Several heavy tear-gassings and nullifying kettlings converged with an extremely low-pressure system, a lot of rain, and many people who were already under slept from April and March. Tuesday the 10th, for example, began with a 7am call for blockades, a word of the week. The plan, it seems, was to block Bercy, the train and bus terminus, since there was a strike from Sud, a rail workers’ union, the same day. This was well organised and began at Opera, where early risers boarded the metro, going on several lines, and in several directions, before ending up in a wild chase – in the station, out of the station, back in the station. The cat and mouse dispersed around the station of Dugommier at about 8.30am, which was encircled by gendarmerie. Manuel Valls passed the law sometime around lunchtime using a special decree 49-3, which was brought in during the instability between the 3rd and 4th republics.
The weather all week was so low pressure, so as to invite serious, lingering headaches, rain with no relief. Assemblée Nationale at 18h was obscured by mist, flares and smoke. A heavy CRS and Gendarmerie presence gradually pushed everyone back, split them. One manif sauvage, a little naively, since there were only 50 people, set off around 19h, after which the rest were kettled on the quayside, forced down next to the water, where the windows of luxury boats displayed Parisians? tourists? serenely lindyhopping or swingdancing in a top window. Police blocked the quay, letting only fluorescent runners through, then fired off teargas . Protesters ran, stopped, since there was nowhere to go. River police – how mobile they are, in any circumstance – passed on speedboats as kids threw what they could: missiles, pieces of scaffolding. The gas continued for several hours, as, completely trapped on the road above the quay, unable to breathe, or to descend, lungs filled over and over with acrid gas.
Thursday the 12th was another manifestation, beginning near Montparnasse. There were clashes at first, tear gas mingling with passers by. Half way through it ended up on a grand place next to a huge building. No one knew what the building was, only, they knew quickly, that it was controlled by military, armed guards. Something began to happen in the square, but as people entered a side gate, this fact was discovered as the army came out with rifles cocked. Tear gas rained down again. A solitary shopping bag filled with paves (paving stones, taken amidst the crowd) was left on the ground in the chaos as CS gas was once again sent into the midst, the march was so tied up that it couldn’t move forward, although some breakaways later achieved road blockades. The march was sent back to where it had started, and so began a long and confusing half kettle. Everyone eventually went home. On this, Thursday 12th’s march, the CGT were openly collaborating with the police to control the demonstration, and this was evident as the vans broke through police lines, without helping pedestrian protesters, or those younger, or masked, through as well.
That evening the Beaux-Arts art school in St Germain des Près was occupied, and an Assemblée Générale began around midnight. This occupation led to several disputes, particularly as many students attending the university made positive appraisals of it, saying that it was different to any other institution, they loved and identified with it. The occupation resulted in two computers being broken, which eventually split the student body, and a castle was built out of street plackets in the middle of the courtyard, resembling one that was built on April 28th at République, before it was violently evicted. The Beaux-Arts occupation was evicted in the early hours of Saturday morning but was beautiful while it lasted.
The dialogue about casseurs (breakers, rioters) gradually began to permeate the atmosphere over the next few days, as it hadn’t seemed to before. On Sunday a friend and I were inveigled into going to an old lady’s house for an aperitif, in Denfert Rochereau. The old lady was an aristocrat, the daughter of two modernist painters, her mother, a lover and student of Picabia. Set up on a divan against her interieur: plants, totems, highly stylised paintings of naked women (an ominous and faceless knight, in a suit of armour, clasping the breasts), she articulated her distaste for the manifestations, for the casseurs “I hate it when they come here, they break everything… they aren’t from Paris, they come from the banlieues , they just want to break everything”. Her racist description of youth from the banlieues, as creatures with compulsions to break seemed to fit with the general sterility of her interior, in which living things had been slowly petrified, stylised.
On Tuesday, the collaboration of the CGT with the police continued. The Service d’Ordre de CGT, who are a section of that union, were out in a huge block. The SO are basically self-elected strongmen from each union who are supposed to control the march - apparently this didn’t always have a collaborative aspect – in the last weeks their aim seems to be to try to get the head of the demonstration. They resemble, in their helmets and build, the BAC (the undercover cops). Some Service d’Ordre – two pathetic Stalinist men with long sticks - had attacked the march on Thursday, and the crowd rushed at them, throwing whatever they could – bins, rubbish, bottles. The discourse against the casseurs (breakers) has seemed to strengthen in the last week, since the Loi was passed, and it seems the unions want to strengthen this distinction, between those who ‘work’ (in more secure, unionised jobs) and ironically those who can’t work or don’t in the same capacity (so, the salariat, précariat, the kids from the banlieue, the MILI: Mouvement Inter-Luttes Indépendents, the lycéens). Or at least, this is what the distinction seems to me, to mean.
Anyway, on Tuesday’s manifestation, which followed generally the same trajectory from the École Militaire through teargas, molotovs, disengagement grenades, burning bins and flying bottles to place Denfert Rochereau, the Service d'Ordre formed a kettle as people tried to escape from a police charge and an intoxicated square. The SO are dangerous too, since they come to demonstrations with iron sticks, baseball bats, helmets, pepper-spray and gloves with weights in the knuckles. Then the demonstration was interesting, the divisions crystallised, the SO were surrounded on both sides.
Tuesday night, on République, in preparation for a police demonstration on Wednesday called to stop “la haine anti-flics” (the hatred of cops), people were covering the floor to commemorate the dates of deaths of civilians killed by police since the 1950s. In permanent white and blue paint, these dates were alongside graffiti that spoke to the French police’s history of collaboration with the Nazis. Rough translation of 1ft tall letters: “ALL OF THE DEPORTED GRANDPARENTS AND CHILDREN HATE THE POLICE”. The demonstration, to “stop the hatred of the police”, would of course require a counter demonstration, since the police brutality has been so severe. Since such a large proportion of police (CRS) in France vote FN (national front), it was suspected that there would also be a large fascist presence. It was rumoured that, coming in solidarity with the police, there would be, in contrast with each other, the LDJ (a fascist Zionist group: Ligue de Défense Juive) as well as the followers of Alain Soral (an neo-Nazi and virulent anti-Semite). On the morning, we turned up too late, to find extremely tense lines of police, hundreds of people (left wing and antifascist) being expelled, spilling out of the square in hundreds. We were always five minutes behind but found our way to Quai de Valmy, where there were plumes of acrid black smoke coming from the remains of a police car.
The anti-police demonstration was now dispersed, but at République, it was impossible to get in to the square, since it was protected by gendarmerie, and a rally of police inside, far off, near the statue, with smoke flares of their own. Peach smoke. Marion Maréchal LePen was inside, giving some kind of speech as the star of the fascists. Kids were outside the cordon, a small group of resistance, a little sad. I overheard a teenager say “Marine Le Pen? Sérieux?”. Activists were saying that police were not the problem, it was the fascists, and there was a furious argument in which several Italians said: it could only ever be the army who would join a popular uprising, never the police, since they vote FN. Apparently a police march, against the fascists and against the police was arriving to support the anti police march. It seemed pretty depressing, the square (a few weeks ago, albeit a liberal and fairly boring site of multi-various political activity, but nonetheless a place) had been cleared, forcefully, and now a fascist rally was being facilitated. People were arguing that police could join the movement against the government, and seemed extremely confused about history. Italian communists hung around, too excited to leave, too tired by the lacklustre atmosphere.
Thursday 19th was a huge manifestation beginning at Nation and finishing at Place d’Italie. The cortège – the ‘autonomous’ part of the manifestation, that is the part which is not affiliated to any union – was huge (10 000 people, they say), and took the front of the demonstration. In a furious argument later, two friends discussed the way student moderates had moved over from the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste to join this more autonomous part of the march. There were some clashes, and at Place D’italie police stormed the square, making charges at protesters, and threw the usual gas. The Service d’Ordre were again attacking the march. This became the site of many clashes, before things were disbanded.