Free the cheese one and the great demonstration
This is the second part of this story that began yesterday. In the first part, I recounted how a chance viewing of Noam Chomsky's documentary had radicalised me, how I ended up in Paris during a general strike and how I had been apprehended by the police for 'liberating' a giant cheese from a supermarket. The story ended with me in the back of a police car...
For the next hour or so I sat in the back of the car while the two officers, who I learned to be from the undercover drug squad, drove around the city and liaised with various contacts. Their beat was the 10th arrondisement, which includes two of Paris' major train stations, les Gare du Nord and de L'Est. Urban train stations are generally associated with the roughest parts of a city and Paris is no exception. Their unmarked car would stop at the top of some dark alley or other and a hobo, or a tough-looking young man with the air of a drug dealer, would wander over to the car window to reveal that, under the gritty exterior, was an upstanding officer of the law. It was surprisingly like a Hollywood cop movie, although I was playing a role that nobody wants. When my arresting officers talked to me, as they occasionally did, I pretended not to speak French and simply repeated a garbled mix of French and English phrases "I am a tourist, it was a joke - touriste, touriste, une blague messieurs, une blague!". They ignored my protestations.
Eventually, the tour of Paris's seediest corners came to an end at the Commissariat de Police de Gare de l'Est. I was frog-marched out of the car and led into a bare, dimly-lit, grimy, windowless room, furnished only by a cheap plastic chair and small wooden table. I was pushed onto the chair with my hands still cuffed behind me and the enormous cheese was placed on the table behind me. The two officers promptly turned around, shut the door, and left me alone. I can't say with any precision how long I remained on that chair in that grim room. It seemed like several hours. My perception of time may have been skewed by the extreme discomfort of the metal handcuffs which were pressed into the chair behind my back and tightly fastened so that they cut into my wrists. I stewed in the contemplation of the unhappy fate that awaited me. The prospect of courtrooms, prisons, large fines and deportation orders loomed large in my mind.
Every few minutes the door would open and an officer or two would open the door, enter the room, look at me and the enormous cheese behind me and burst out laughing. After this had happened several times, I realised that my arresting officers were displaying me to their colleagues as a sort of circus attraction, the small drunken Irish man with the huge cheese - for in truth the cheese was almost as large as I am. The humiliation of the situation was somewhat softened by the dawning realisation that they were not taking the situation entirely seriously and that they had not initiated any formal booking procedures. All I could do was try to look as harmless and sheepish as I could manage and hope that they would look kindly on me for providing such unexpected entertainment.
Eventually, after I had been displayed to a surprisingly large number of police officers, my arresting officers returned and without explaining what my situation was, they hauled me to my feet and led me out of the room, through a lobby full of police officers, who were kind enough to point and laugh at me and even add a few slaps as I passed. I was once again placed in the back of a car and the cheese was returned to the trunk behind me. We set off once again and, as dawn broke across the city, we emerged from a side street into a great clearing that I immediately recognised as Place de la Republique. My heart rose. It seemed that they were bringing me home and that I might escape from the whole escapade without being cast among the criminal orders for life!
True to my hopes, the car crossed the square and stopped at the entrance to John and Tinky's apartment, at the junction of Rue du Temple and Place de la Republique. However, they did not release me. Instead, they got out of the car, leaving me in the back, still handcuffed. I could see them approaching the supermarket from which the cheese had come and initiating a conversation with a man standing there whom I recognised as the security guard who had apprehended me. Although I was too far away to make out any details of the conversation, it was obvious that a fierce argument had broken out between the gendarmes and the security guard. This argument raged for some minutes, replete with copious remonstrations and waving of hands. I was at a loss to understand what was going on, but, eventually, one of the gendarmes came storming back to the car and extracted the enormous cheese from the trunk and proceeded to leave it on the ground in front of the supermarket. I heard him shout at the security guard something like "you can do whatever the hell you like with it, we're not taking it". Both of them then turned their back on the visibly irate guard and hauled me out of the back of the car without a tremendous amount of care for the integrity of my limbs.
I later learned that, subsequent to my arrest, my comrades had re-emerged from the apartment building in order to continue the conversation with the security guard and to admonish him for his lack of a sense of humour in having me arrested. He had not taken kindly to their approach and had once again wielded his can of pepper spray. This time, it had proved less effective at warding off his critics. John, who was known to be a little feisty after a few shandies, had taken offense at this and had landed a blow on the guard whereupon he had received a healthy dose of chemical discomfort in the eyes and face. The others had then separated the two and had dragged John back into the apartment.
The security guard had obviously taken some exception to the bruises that he had received and had refused to drop the matter when the gendarmes had returned with their captive. However, the gendarmes had obviously decided that it would be far too much trouble in terms of paperwork to prosecute me and were strongly opposed to keeping me in custody. My ability to come across as a harmless idiot saved my bacon, a lesson that I was to put to good use in more serious situations in the future.
Still, the drama was not yet fully over. The gendarmes were unwilling to release me on to the footpath, probably for fear that I would decide to reignite the dispute with the fuming guard who was still lurking nearby. They insisted on taking me into the building all the way up to the apartment door. Luckily, I managed to remember the route through the warren of corridors that dissected the old 19th century apartment building and managed to find the correct door. One of the gendarmes rang the door bell while the other, mercifully, unlocked my cuffs, releasing my arms from behind my back. My hands had gone numb from the tightness of the constraints but with the cuffs removed, this numbness quickly turned into agony.
After a minute or so the door opened. I was dismayed to see a dense plume of smoke emerging into the corridor. The unmistakable odour of pungent marijuana enveloped all three of us. I could vaguely make out Simon's cherubic features through the haze, features that took on a distinctly alarmed look when he realised that there were two gendarmes staring at him. They, however, had enough of these particular Irish idiots. They turned to one another, threw their eyes to heaven and practically threw me through the door before turning on their heels and marching away as quickly as they could. I was a free man again and re-united with my comrades.
They had been sitting up all night anxiously worrying about how they were going to recover my person from the authorities and trying to nurse John's face which had been badly affected by the pepper spray - his features were distorted by extreme redness and swelling to such an extent that his eyes were entirely closed over. As we exchanged accounts of the evening, the adrenalin of the adventure drained from my body, an overwhelming fatigue came over me and I collapsed onto a sofa and fell asleep mid-conversation.
The Great Demonstration
We arose shortly after lunch-time the next day with sore heads and, after pulling ourselves together into some semblance of order, we ventured out once more. The trade unions had scheduled a demonstration for mid-afternoon in support of the strikes and, conveniently for us, its starting point was Place de la Republique, right on our doorstep. As soon as we opened the door of our apartment building on that December afternoon, it was immediately obvious that this was a much larger demonstration than anything that I had ever witnessed before. The crowd was overflowing out of the great square and extended, in dense formation, into all of the access streets, including the Rue du Temple where we emerged into a city transformed.
We pushed through the crowd, resplendent with banners, flags and placards, towards the square itself, making slow progress through groups that were closely packed together under a great variety of colourful decorations which identified them as different union and political groups. Eventually, we made it to the edge of the square where the crowd was so densely packed that it was impossible to gain any idea of its magnitude or extent or to advance much further.
We sheltered by a telephone box (in 1995, these were common parts of the street furniture), which protected us from the surges that regularly washed over the crowd as some group or other marshalled its members to take their position in the marching order that was forming somewhere beyond our horizon. In order to gain some sense of the crowd's scope, I scrambled onto the roof of the phone box, helped up by a leg up from Simon. I hauled myself to me feet on its roof and steadied my stance before looking out over the crowd. In front of me I saw the most magnificent sight. By far the largest crowd that I had ever seen was arrayed there. Every corner of the vast square was filled with demonstrators. Their ranks stretched, in tight formation, far beyond the square.
The Place de la Republique is the congruence point of no less than six Grand Boulevards - the great wide streets that are the hallmarks of Baron Hausseman's 19th century re-engineering of Paris' layout. They were partly intended to facilitate the suppression of revolutions by removing many of the narrow streets that provided cover for insurrectionaries and replacing them with broad avenues which were easily accessible by both cavalry and artillery. On this day, they were packed with demonstrators as far as the eye could see. From my perch on top of the phone box, I could see hundreds of metres along the length of the Boulevard du Temple and the Boulevard Voltaire, both of which lead South towards Place de Bastille, the site of the city's most famous insurrection and the spiritual centre of the great French Revolution. Nothing but people.
The atmosphere was festive: trucks with huge sounds systems boomed out pop-music. Union emcees led chants of "Le plan Chriac, Le Plan Juppé, les syndicats sont dans la rue" and a host of other songs and refrains that I could not make out amid the cacophony. Vendors of Merguez - North African spicy sausages - mingled with the union corteges. Everywhere banners, flags, placards and even enormous balloons signalled the allegiance of the groups of marchers: CGT, CFDT, Fronte Ouvriere and thousands of others. Later I would come to understand who these groups were, their politics and history, but for now they were just letters representing the exotic and byzantine complexity of the organised labour movement. Within the union corteges were sub-groups representing professions - from doctors to engineers, oil workers to street cleaners, the whole of economic life was represented.
What I saw before me was the working class in full mobilisation, something that I had been reading about for months, but a sight I had never seen in person. Sure, I had seen some demonstrations in Ireland. The largest one that I had observed had been a march in favour of abortion rights in 1992 - the so called X case. It was considered to be enormous in Ireland, numbering some 15,000. This crowd was at least 100 times bigger. The most conservative estimates in the right wing newspapers put attendance at over 1 million people but most guesses were closer to 2 million. 2 million workers in one place! To a newly radicalised young man from Ireland, this was a seriously impressive sight.
After some time, the crowd moved in a slow surging wave towards Bastille, filling the grand boulevards wall to wall, taking hours to pass each point. After observing this great ocean of labour passing for some time, we followed along, carried away with the crowd's flow. The march first passed along Boulevard du Temple, onto Boulevard Beuamarchais before entering in splendour into the great Place de Bastille. At Bastille it turned towards the East along the Rue du Faubourg Sainte Antoine where the buildings are more closely packed together. Every window seemed full of cheering and waving supporters. Finally, after a couple of kilometres, it emerged into Place de Nation, the end point, another of Paris' great squares.
By the time we reached Nation, much of the crowd had already left in order to leave space for the later arrivals. On the far side of the square and in every side street leading into it were arrayed masses of CRS - the paramilitary political police force whose special job is to repress political challenges to the establishment from the masses. Today the crowd was such that they kept their distance until, after several hours, the crowd had started to thin out. At this stage, the crowd was dominated by a die-hard fringe of protestors who started to burn vehicles and whatever combustible material they could find in the vicinity, taunting the massed ranks of the CRS, obviously spoiling for a fight. That was the signal for us to take our leave as we had no desire to get intimately acquainted with any more police officers after the previous night's adventures.
In the next installment which I'll publish on Monday, I'll describe how the strike panned out and explain why I've chosen to open my account of my political activity with this episode and, finally, how Chomsky relates to all of this.