“Les Flics Sont:” May Day in Paris



Photo by Patrick Stewart

It was drizzling lightly in Paris when I woke up at the crack of 11:00 a.m. on May the first. A full three hours passed when I had planned on meeting the Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (National Confederation of Workers, or CNT), an anarchist group with ties to labor rights. Luckily for me, it appeared that anarchists weren’t morning people either, and there was still only a small contingent gathered when I arrived. The plan, from what I could gather, was to march down through the Republique and to the Bastille. This was no random march plan—the downtrodden working class descending into the center of Paris, just like the aristocracy had feared around the time of the revolution.

When I arrived, one person was playing traditional worker’s songs on a hurdy-gurdy, and there was plenty of shouting and applause. The numbers quickly swelled as banners and flags were unfurled, and an hour later, the march began with well over a thousand in line.

It began with chants and songs, waving flags as the drizzle became a downpour. The number of people in bandanas and balaclavas grew as we went, but there was not a police officer in sight. As we marched out of the suburban area, the crowd grew more agitated.

But it wasn’t until we passed the first bank, a Caisse D’Epargne, that things finally escalated. At first, a few empty beer bottles were thrown, and then a half-dozen men charged the glass-fronted building, swinging sticks and feet, breaking windows. Other protesters rushed in and pulled them back, blocking the bank off from further destruction. But the damage was done, physically and figuratively. I saw a plainclothes officer slide out of the crowd and begin speaking into his sleeve. Moments later, I passed a dozen fully—armored riot police.

As we marched, we passed a huge French flag which had been emblazoned with a shining heart and the words “Republic of Love.” Several masked participants tore it down.

Then we passed a MonoPrix, a large chain grocery store common across Paris. This time, 20 or 30 men rushed towards it and began to beat and kick at the huge windows. No one tried to stop them. The windows did not shatter as I‘d expected, but instead fell in whole, only breaking as it landed on the shopping carts behind. Bags of trash and bottles were launched into the store. There were cheers from the crowd, mixed with shouts that sounded angry—I could not say if they were directed at the chain store or the men of mayhem.

Within seconds, there were more riot police than I could count. They did not move into the crowd, but lined the sides of the street, as far back as I could see. They formed around the windows of banks and larger stores—the crowd seemed to ignore anything locally owned. Even so, shutters began to close across stores as we approached.

Smashed window of a MonoPrix grocery store. PATRICK STEWART

Smashed window of a MonoPrix grocery store. PATRICK STEWART

Suddenly, as we neared the Republique, the crowd stopped. I could see behind us a dozen large police vans and several large trucks, breaking off any possible retreat. Ahead were several phalanxes of riot police, and they still hemmed us in on both sides. The rain increased. The crowd grew more restless—the energy was palpable in the air. We were standing still for too long. One man began prancing around in front of a group of police, shouting out jokes about them. The crowd laughed, and the tension was momentarily eased. Soon, however, the chanting began again, and the police formed into groups: backs to the wall, half circles, shields and batons facing out. I braced myself for a charge, knowing they would not understand or care that I was there to observe.

At that moment, we began to move again. The riot cops had formed a triangle, forcing us through an ever narrowing gap of bodies, so at the final point we could be no more than four abreast. I felt my heart beat faster and faster until I was through—but only a few seconds later, an officer was shoved, and hell broke loose. Batons were raised and lowered as protesters fell, shouting. Many were dragged to the side and arrested. I grabbed for my camera, but at that moment, the first blast of pepper spray floated into the air and my eyes began instantly to burn. I yanked the black bandana I wore up and over my mouth and ran. The police did not pursue those of us who removed ourselves, and left us to cough and gasp in the nearby square where we relocated.

When I finally was able to see and breathe, I looked back around. Many had been arrested, some had fled. Others were trapped back in the street we’d come from, cut off from the main group. Those on my side were starting to form ranks and push back toward the police, who were still beating at protesters on the ground, clawing at their eyes. The police reformed as well, and the two groups regarded each other for several minutes until the protesters fell back.

Eventually, the police let those on the other side through. We watched a large group of some union drive up on motorcycles, smiling, honking, and raising fists in solidarity before they drove away again. This, combined with the fact that many of the more militant individuals had been arrested, seemed to subdue the crowd, and it continued along the wider streets of downtown. The crowd, whole again, chanted a call-and-response “les flics sont” / “assassins” (the cops are / assassins—flic being a derogative, akin to pig).


Photo by Patrick Stewart

The violence was done for the morning. As we approached the Bastille square, the cops rushed off to deal with some other duties. They were no longer needed—the sun had come out and the square was filled with people. Tens of thousands milled about here, other unions, food vendors, balloons. The feeling was festive and celebratory. But I knew now that the calm that now characterized the May Day demonstration did not reflect the true feeling of the workers of France.