Management of the 1st of May in Paris: the State is losing it

This post is also available in: Français (French) Deutsch (German)

May 1st is, in France, an institution; no one would argue the contrary. A public holiday, a day off and paid, a labour day for some, a workers’ day for others, the 1st of May reconciles the old Pétainist modernism of the State and French bosses with the heroism of the working class condition proper to Stalinism. The time of an History|s end of 24 hours, all this unites in the same economic religion of progress, and the same boredom. May 1st is the day of the thrush, but it is also the day of the Bastille-Nation-Republic route. Red balloons, merguez and Zebda trhough the speakers to cover the aphasia, the loss of any kind of prospect that goes beyond the present state of things. Lutte Ouvriere sings the International. The anarchists come with their children. The number of visitors varies, depending on the losses of the year, and the amount of sunshine. In 2005, a hostage journalist on the other side of the world was even made the involuntary icon of this day. That’s how much we can celebrate and hate.

The 1st of May, until recently, was therefore an example of a demonstration where nothing happens. Haymarket, the shooting of Fourmies or the Clichy case, what s the link ? In the 1970s, Jean-Pierre Voyer displayed a large banner “alienation day” over the procession; it is still remembered; it was even made into a postcard. On another occasion, a few independents decided to drive the Socialist Party out of the procession; the CNT security service protected the Socialists. These were the kind of events that occurred on May 1st. Everything could have continued in this way, if the “cortege de tete” stem from the protests against the Labour Law had not interfered in this peaceful routine.

May 1, 2016

For the Prefecture, the emergence, in 2016, of the “cortege de tete” transformed May 1st from a sinecure into a brain teaser. French expertise in crowd management is recognized worldwide. It is exported to all sorts of countries with exotic diets. It is envied worldwide. But we must recognize that the State finds itself, following the last May 1st, in front of a bone.

There is even a reason to wonder whether he would not, more and more visibly, behave eratically.

On 1 May 2016, for the first time, thousands of people marched in front of the official trade union demonstration. Some demonstrators were certainly masked, but the greatest number were not – which did not prevent him from pushing enthusiastic cheers to every bank gutted, showing psychological complicity with the “breakers”. Many trade unionists, with or without recognizable chasubles, had joined this playful procession. On this sunny day, the atmosphere was nice until the Prefecture decided to kettle all those who were ahead of the official procession. Consequently, the whole demonstration was stopped. It was to be imagined that some of the rioters who had been giving the authorities so much trouble for months could be catched into the crowd. This colourfull procession head, which looked like anything but a “black block”, was therefore encircled. Such a manoeuvre obviously does not go without generous gassing and blind bludgeoning. By doing so, we succeed in transforming these thousands of bodies, this composite crowd, immobilized under a sun that darts for a good hour, into a “mass crystal”sharing emotional state, into rage against the police.

One hour is the time it tool for the Prefecture to try to negotiate with the CGT, which agreed to divert the planned route of the parade, in order to be able to control, and occasionally take away, this vicious “cortege de tete”. But the CGT refused and the kettle had to be released. This episode – the columnists did too little to emphasize it – contributed to popularize the slogan “everyone hates the police”, and to make it true. The end of the journey thus saw the explosion of joy multiply at each broken window. We even heard, while some were undertaking to crumble an Autolib’ station on the outskirts of Nation, a massive and premonitory “everyone hates Bolloré”. As we can see, on May 1, 2016, the prefecture has not only tangled its brushes, but has helped to sharpen minds. Some observers remember that the CRS dropped for no good reason, and threw as a farewell as they approached Nation, a dozen “desencerclantes” grenades. It seems that it is up to current French policing doctrines to use the “non-lethal” wound of a few to dissuade others from demonstrating.

May 1, 2017

Anyone who knows this institution knows what it means to persevere, but also to seek revenge, in the police profession. The 1st of May 2017 gave a good example of this state of mind. Taking the lead, the Prefecture designed this time its plan upstream and with the CGT order service. This plan, let’s face it, was frankly Machiavellian. It consisted of this:

– to let a few “autonomous” people know that May 1st 2016 had really been agreed at the central and that there was therefore no obstacle for the cortege de tete to remain uncontrolled.

– let these uncontrolled gather quietly in front of the CGT between Republique and Bastille.

– when the cortege de tete is set off, separate it, in agreement with the CGT security service containing its troops, from the rest of the demonstration, chase it forward with tear gas and various shots fired and rolling up to Bastille, from there push it back to the Coulée Verte, kettle them there, then open Faubourg Saint-Antoine so that the demonstration can follow its course and join Nation without even realizing that 600 people were being controlled and embarked at 200 meters from there.

The well understood interest of the direction of the CGT and the Prefecture would have found there something to be satisfied of with this beautiful win-win deal, if Solidaires had accepted to divert also the route of its cortege and take faubourg Saint-Antoine rather than the Dausmenil avenue. But Solidaires refused. And the plan so cleverly designed fell through.

After this hazardous and useless manoeuvre, once again, it was necessary to open the kettle. One can easily imagine the irritation of those who had just been parked, gassed and clubbed in vain at the exit of the small ephemeral camp that one had meditated just for them. Thus the rest of the course was furious. On 1 May 2017, the police had missed another opportunity to make friends.

May 1, 2018

On May 1, 2018, the Prefecture decided to kettle the entire demonstration, as it did not manage to kettle the “cortege de tete”. Pretending that Place de la Nation is under construction, and against the advice of the trade unions who demanded a much longer route, the route of 1 May 2018 is therefore reduced to its simplest expression: Bastille-bassin of the Arsenal-pont of Austerlitz-boulevard of the Hospital-Place d’Italie. Water cannons stationed at every “hot” spot, few tear gas due to their rarefaction following the debauchery of gases used at the ZAD, probably pre-checks at the approach of Bastille and blocked axes of grids along the route. In short: a device similar to that of September 12, 2017, where the “cortege de tete” loses all meaning since it comes down to playing the uncontrolled in a space itself under total control. A dispositive and a route designed to dissuade demonstrators from demonstrating.

The excuse provided by the Prefecture, this time, is that 1,000 to 1,500 “autonomous” people came. Certainly, given what the month of April has been, given the level of radicality adopted in the face of the ongoing movement by the government, given the brutality of the methods used, we can anticipate an unusual level of rage among the participants of a May 1st. Certainly, the latest Parisian demonstrations, on 22 March and 19 April, saw a surprisingly large, playful and virulent resurgence of the “cortege de tete” whose spirit clearly remained alive, despite the wear and tear of tactics through repetition. We therefore understand the Prefecture’s fears. We understand that between the confusing, hard and tight management of the events of Valls’ time and the more distant, flexible but scientific management of the new Prefet, it has still found nothing satisfactory and that we continue to “experiment”. But isn’t the role of the police to manage disorder? Do we really believe that, in order to “manage the crowds”, it is enough to make them disappear? Can we not see that by only allowing demonstrations to take place within a trap, we are taking the risk of extending to the entire city the zone of chaos that we will have even more difficulty controlling? Do we not realize that by trying to ban from demonstrations those we identify as “inconveniences”, we only increase their anger? Don’t we understand that by stiffening, we certainly make ourselves more brittle, but also more breakable?

Anyway, with this May 1st 2018, we can see that the experimentation continues, on all sides; and that it is still too early to judge the new sequence that opens with this month of May. This month of May could be surprising, it could be the moment of a second wave following the one of April, drawing lessons and rising to the level of abrupt conflict dropped by a government devoid of the slightest dialectical sense.