France In Flames


4th May 2023

When French president Emmanuel Macron ran for office last year, part of his platform was an unpopular pension reform that would force workers to work several years more before retirement. Forced to choose between outright fascists and neoliberals, French voters grudgingly elected Macron, but a showdown has been brewing ever since.

The movement against the pension reform got underway with a strike on January 16, 2023. Polite protests gave way to generalized unrest on March 16 when prime minister Élisabeth Borne used article 49.3 of the Constitution to bypass a vote in the National Assembly, implementing the new law by force. As the revolt gathered steam, it expanded beyond opposing the pension reform to rejecting neoliberalism as a whole. The protests, strikes, and blockades became gestures of resistance against the arbitrary power of the executive office as well as against Macron and his cronies (“Macron et son monde”), reminiscent of the Yellow Vests movement in 2018.

Today, the movement has reached another stage. In response to the intensification of the struggle and the diversification of tactics and battlefronts, police have dramatically escalated the violence with which they are targeting demonstrators. Even corporate business media like the The Financial Times are criticizing Macron’s repressive and authoritarian handling of the movement.

Protests in Lorient on Tuesday, March 28.

The General Strike of March 23
On March 22, the day before a general strike called by the unions, Macron stoked the fires of resentment. He showed up to address corporate media wearing a watch worth 80,000 euros, which he attempted to subtly remove during the interview. In that media appearance, Macron presented an authoritarian and disdainful figure, lying about the movement and the repression that the police had meted out. Effectively, he told the unions and the people that he cared neither about what they had to say nor about their lives in general.

On Thursday, March 23, about 3.5 million people took the streets, including more than 800,000 in Paris alone. The blockades and strikes were successful all over the country, impacting high schools, universities, city transit, garbage collection garages, refineries, harbors, airports, trains, highways, and other institutions. The day ended with numerous “manifs sauvages” (wildcat marches) in the streets of Paris and fires all around the country—some at symbols of the executive and the government, including county offices, town halls, and police stations.

While it felt like a victory and a sort of coming together, Thursday also revealed that Macron and his police aimed to crush the budding uprising at any cost. Police targeted everyone without exception—for example, they usually abstain from hitting the security line that protects the unions, but in this case, they did not hesitate to. Images circulated widely showing police charging protestors indiscriminately, shooting military-grade GM2L grenades upwards and into the crowd, knocking people unconscious. While French police have never shied from using military weapons to subdue rebellious crowds—for example, during the Yellow Vest movement and the eviction of the ZAD in Notre-Dame-des-Landes in 2018—it is unusual for them to target elected officials, unions, students, and children as well as the black bloc. In many cases, the entire crowd responded with collective anger, which is also unusual.

Compared to the tremendous number of people in the streets, there were very few arrests. This was for two reasons. First, people were well organized, outnumbered the cops, and protected each other as much as they could. Second, the cops were not trying to grab people, but to inflict physical and emotional damage, in hopes of dissuading the many people who were taking to the streets for the first time from returning. Whether they succeeded or not remains to be seen.

The Strike Continues
Friday, March 24 opened with a strong presence on the picket lines, in particular at the refinery Total Normandy (close to Le Havre). People came from Paris and neighboring regions to support the blockade throughout the night and early in the morning. Comrades who appreciate French pop culture will be happy to know that rapper Medine and actress Adèle Haenel were on the picket line.

A part of supporting the strike is resisting “réquisitions.” Despite the right to strike being written into the French Constitution, there is a legal provision that allows the local government (la Préfecture) to force strikers back to work if the strike puts the economy at risk. In Le Havre, the blockade remained strong, but the state has been carrying out réquisitions across the country, especially in the field of energy. This confirms that the strike is working, as there is usually a delay between refineries shutting down and fuel shortages beginning, but it also indicates that the government is prepared to send the cops to people’s houses in order to force them back to work.

A Few Days Later
Many people attended a nationwide mobilization against the “Loi Asile et Immigration” (also called the Loi Darmanin, after the Minister of the Interior—the head cop of France, if you will). This law, the next one on Macron’s oppressive agenda, will severely reduce the rights of migrants, facilitating the imprisonment and deportation of exiled and undocumented people on French land. While the number of people who attended that protest was nothing close to the number of people who are protesting against the pension reform, we are slowly building ties connecting anti-racist resistance and solidarity with wider resistance against the government.

From Saturday on, police violence became the chief topic of conversation and media coverage. Gérald Darmanin and Laurent Nuñez (the head cops of France and of Paris, respectively) did their best to spread lies about the events in Sainte-Soline and to try to legitimize the police retaliation in Paris. In the city, the BRAV-M police units—the “mobile” units that chase people around on motorcycles—took center stage in this discussion. There is already a remarkable number of videos of the BRAV-M assaulting isolated individuals, running over people, and verbally and sexually abusing people; this should not be surprising, as their ancestors, the “voltigeurs,” were famous for similar behavior, including the murder of Malek Oussekine in 1986, which inspired the movie La Haine.

Some unions—including the CGT and Solidaires—also spoke out against police brutality, expressing solidarity with those who suffered in Sainte-Soline. The slogan “Ni oubli, ni pardon” (“don’t forget, don’t forgive”) is slowly proliferating among striking workers. Even international media covering the movement and condemning Macron’s autocratic and repressive strategy has begun focusing on police violence rather than the pension reform.

At several work sites, as a consequence of requisitions and fatigue, workers had taken a break from the strike over the weekend. Many resumed striking again on Monday and Tuesday, but there is undoubtedly a certain weariness amongst strikers and supporters doubled with sadness and fear in the face of large-scale military repression. Darmanin and Macron are hoping to sway public opinion by brandishing the specter of violence in front of people’s eyes in the same way that the government did to suppress the Gilets Jaunes movement in December 2018. Whether this strategy will be successful remains to be seen. It will depend, in part, on how successful we are at presenting other narratives.

The general strike of Tuesday, March 28 was relatively successful, depending on who you ask. The number of people in the streets is diminishing, but it was still among the highest recorded over the past two months—about two million. Cities in the west of France (“le Grand-Ouest”), famous for their insurrectionary tendencies, coordinated successful road blockades. A significant number of refineries, fuel storage units, and other logistical centers were blocked or on strike; more than 400 gas stations in France were out of fuel on Wednesday, March 29. Schools and universities remained on strike as well—as did the Eiffel Tower, among other well-known French institutions.

As for the demonstrations themselves, the results were mixed. Fierce gatherings took place in Rennes and Nantes, where the black bloc is always offensive, and in cities like Lyon, St-Etienne, and Toulouse. In Paris, the atmosphere was tense. While some confrontations with police broke out late in the day, they felt more symbolic than strategic. Significantly, the spontaneous night marches have died down. If spontaneous marches and other forms direct action return to the streets despite the government’s show of force over the weekend, that could give the movement a second wind; if they do not, that could determine its fate.

While the government’s perverse rhetoric should not shape our actions, it is important to puncture the narratives that they are trying to propagate. Essentially, Macron is using the same strategy he used to suppress the Yellow Vests. He is blaming the protesters for the injuries that police inflict on them, in order to infantilize and discredit those who defend themselves against the police and to justify the escalation of police repression.

This circular rhetoric is already at play in Darmanin’s lies about the events in Sainte-Soline, as explored in the analysis “The Trap of Sainte-Soline.” Darmanin has initiated a legal process targeting the collective “Les Soulèvements de la Terre” for “dissolution,” equating ecological sabotage with terrorism by claiming that many of the protesters at Sainte-Soline are long-time “A-listed dangerous individuals” (“fichés S” in the French counter-information databases).

The state is attempting to turn the popular outcry about police violence on its head. The goal is not so much to legitimize the use of military force on unarmed protesters—Macron won’t admit to that—but to present it as the unavoidable side-effect of his righteous efforts to protect the French Republic from dangerous and irresponsible individuals who must be stopped for their own sake. But there is another way to read this whole situation.

If Macron is determined to force his agenda through without a vote regardless of how unpopular it is, and to suppress all protest by means of militarized police violence, then the only way to prevent the arrival of outright autocracy is to establish a rapport de force with the police. In that case, those who take the initiative to experiment with ways to defend themselves from police are neither infantile nor irresponsible. On the contrary, they are the only thing standing between us and tyranny.

In this spirit, many people have called for gatherings across France on Thursday, March 30 to oppose police brutality and stand up for the people who have been wounded, some of whom are still fighting for their lives in the hospital.

Facing down the police is not a matter of bringing symmetrical force to bear against them, but of outflanking them. It requires outsmarting them as they attempt to isolate and corner us, whether physically or discursively. It means escalating all together, uncontrollably, as a network too extensive to surround—moving, merging, branching off, changing course, and innovating more rapidly than they can keep up with, and doing so on every kind of terrain, from the streets themselves to the narrative about what is taking place in them.

For now, the issue of police brutality threatens to supplant all other subjects of public discussion, including the pension reform, work itself, and the power of the state. This may also conceal a trap for the movement. Focusing on the police alone will not necessarily produce a strategy that enables us to overcome them.

The intersyndicale (the coordination of the eight biggest national unions in France) has called for the next nationwide strike to occur on Thursday, April 6. In many people’s eyes, that is too late, as the events that will determine whether the movement lives or dies will have occurred by then. This long gap will give unions time to negotiate with the state: already, some union leaders have been speaking with the government. While a few hardliners inside the CGT and other unions are resisting their leaders’ pressure to concede, the history of union politics is a veritable litany of cautionary tales.

Of course, when the unions announced the general strike for March 23 after the spontaneous protests of Thursday, March 16, many people also believed that the movement would die over the following week. As always, what takes place in the streets will determine everything. Despite fatigue, pain, and grief, French people have yet to give up the fight. Long live the revolution! ■

Extract of a piece by CrimethInc
Audio reading by Ed

The police in Sainte-Soline on March 25, 2023.

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