Labor Day, 2018
As I exited the metro I looked out over a sea of people at Place de la Bastille for the Paris Labor Day Parade. Picket signs in hand, people were prepared to parade down the Parisian roads. The streets were closed off to all cars and in their place settled stands and tents. Megaphones mumbled unintelligible French from every direction. Each stand had flags promoting diverse varied causes. Some bore hammer and sickles, while others boasted the twelve stars of the European Union. Some promoted workers’ unions, while others publicized politicians.
Place de la Bastille has always been my favorite area of Paris. It’s a true beacon of revolution, and I often go there and try to imagine the immense fortress that once stood. This Bourbon prison which once laid claim to celebrity convicts such as Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade, a representation of the beginning the French Revolution, is now memorialized by a large teal column, with cars circling around it like horses on a merry-go-round. This 18th-century battle ground is now inhabited by street musicians and performers, cafes and breweries, graffiti and galleries, and an Opera house which gazes over le Bassin de l’Arsenal, the fortress’ old moat.
My roommate Lewis had told me about the event a few weeks prior and I had promised to go with him, even though I had scheduled lunch with my aunt that same day. As roommates, Lewis and I had bonded over a common interest in leftist thought and political theory. Late were nights spent in my room listening to vinyl and discussing revolutionary history. A year of living with him developed my sheltered, American political perspective. In my 20 years of living in Colorado, no one had ever told me they were a communist. I was enchanted by this new world. It made sense to me, a world of coexistence, equality, and compassion, without cruelty competition, or capitalism. Lewis told me that this year was the 50th anniversary of the 68’ Paris riots, so it was bound to be eventful. In 1968, protests and strikes, lead by students and workers, caused civil unrest in Paris and throughout France for over a month. Streets were barricaded. Cars were burned, demonstrators jailed. These protests halted the French economy and resulted in the resignation of the French icon, General Charles de Gaulle.
France’s interpretation of “labor” differed highly from American interpretations. Unlike Europe, the United States celebrates labor day the first Monday in September. It is treated more like a last hurrah of summer’s fun rather than a celebration of a workers movement. Growing up, our normal labor day festivities consisted of pool parties, barbecues, and shopping sales. I recall one particular occasion my whole family went camping in Estes Park for three days in the mountains. We hiked a mountain, swam in a glacier lake and if you listened closely you could hear serene nothingness. Lewis assured me this would be nothing like that.
And these strikes only 50 years ago were not Paris’s first encounter with leftist extremism. Hell, leftist extremism is as Parisian as art museums and monuments- more Parisian, even. Near the end of the 18th century, Jacobinism flowed like blood through cobblestone. The idea, whether successful or not, was to abolish the monarchy and create a republic, freeing the people from dogmatic oppression and poverty. These notions were reborn when France lost a war to Prussia near the end of the 19th century. Thusly, the goals were the same: abolish the empire, create a republic, freeing the people from political oppression and poverty. Repeated histories like these are engraved in French memory. The French know they play as much of a role as their politicians in driving history.
I scanned the immediate vicinity for Lewis and found him standing on top of road block near the column, waving his hands to get my attention. He was dressed in his typical garb; a Paris Saint-Germain football tracksuit, with a large fur coat and ‘East Coast’ hat. His all black apparel contrasting the maroon sweater and dress shoes I had put on for lunch with my aunt. He looked incredibly excited for the parade and I knew he had been anticipating it for weeks. Lewis grew up in a family that moved a lot, leaving behind cities and friends time and time again. While moving, Lewis sought solace and friendship through political literature. He lived the first ten years of his life in Geneva, Switzerland, where he learned about internationalism and peace. His father then got a promotion, moving them to Florence, Italy, where he learned about antifascism and archarism. At age 14 he moved again, this time to Mexico City, where he learned about rebellion and guerilla warfare. Now he finds himself in Paris, a revolutionary capital.
Every few steps we discovered a new stand. The first one sold political philosophy pamphlets. Each cover displayed the face of the author whether that be Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin or even Maximilien de Robespierre. Pins of revolutionary leaders such as Che Guevara and Mathmatma Gandhi were scattered over the table. Lewis bought a copy of a Trotsky text and got a pin for free.
We stopped at an Algerian food stand to get Lewis some food, sitting down to watch a Malian dance routine with the most incredible djembe percussionists. As Lewis attacked his merguez, I sat and grinned. This much exposure to internationalism was fairly new to me, but made me feel comfortable.
The flow of the parade pushed us down rue de Lyon. We would stop every so often to watch floats. We saw floats for the NPA, the CGT, and the CNT. The IWW, the SUD, the USM and various other groups whose acronyms suffocate their cause followed suit. A moving speech was given by a university student who was part of a movement disrupting and occupying university classrooms as a form of protest. These students were forcibly removed by police despite non-violently protesting what they believed to be dangerous changes to public education.
All movement of the parade ceased at Pont d’Austerlitz. There was a different mood in the front of the parade. There were no stands. There were no tents. There weren’t any students protesting over megaphones. No food trucks, unions, or politicians. None of that. Replacing them all was a massive crowd of people, draped in black. The only thing that remained was the Malian Djembe rhythm.
I stood up on the curb to try and get a view of the sea of people in front of me. The crowd stretched all the way to Jardin des Plantes, but still no one seemed to be moving. Alongside their black uniform, most people wore some kind of facial protection. Whether it was a gas mask, a ski mask or a simple bandana, they looked prepared. Here, I began to regret wearing the collared shirt and sweater from lunch with my aunt. As flares and smoke bombs burst from the bridge a repetitive chant echoed from different parts of the bridge at varying times. I listened to the chant. It wasn’t in French or English, but I could make out two words of it: ‘Anti-Fascisti.” Here they stood, the black block.
I made my way back to Lewis and saw that he had homogenized comfortably into the crowd. His extra t-shirt was tied around his head as a kerchief, covering his nose and mouth, as he joined along in the anti-fascist chant. “Siamo tutti antifascisti,” he explains to me. “We are all anti fascists. It’s was Italian chant that was used to protest Mussolini.” Excited by this historical anecdote I clapped and chanted as the pack paraded across the bridge.
Near the end of the bridge, we came to another halt. About a hundred meters away from us, on either side, police vans blockaded the demonstration, keeping a watchful eye on the congregation. Despite the police presence, or maybe because of it, the scene became rowdier; people climbing light posts, larger explosives, vandalization at free will. The man in front of me reached into his backpack and pulled out a pickaxe. I began to wonder what destructive aims this axed man bore, he slammed his tool into the cobblestone street. The hits that followed were not as forceful, but more precise, digging and removing stone after stone. Sous les pavé la plage, non?
In all the ruckus I looked over to Lewis, wide eyed, to see that he was holding a joint. I glanced past him and saw the intimidating van. I think I made eye contact with an officer. “What about all the police?” I asked, thinking they would intervene at any moment. Lewis paused. “Man, we just saw a guy with a pickaxe tear up the street. I think we’re okay. The police know that because of the 50 year anniversary of the 68’ riots that the leftist are feeling bold. This whole parade is them allowing contained anarchy, hoping that the people will get their fix and move on tomorrow.” I could not argue with that.
We smoked the joint, nearly uninterrupted, until we heard a deafening blast. The blasts were either getting bigger or closer. Lewis nudges me, pointing to the where the detonations were coming from. Right across the street from us every single window of the McDonalds had been shattered. People rushed out of the building as stones flew in. Rioters were throwing in an explosive every ten seconds until one of them caught fire to the ceiling. Despite the damage that it had taken, its golden arches still stood proudly.
As the fire rose, we hurried away from the McDonald’s, following the parade to see it had truly turned into anarchy. Cars tipped over in the streets, several of which were set ablaze. Fire spread and was about to reach a neighboring apartment building. Protesters and cops exchanged words, fists, explosives and other pleasantries near the gates of Gare d’Austerlitz. One policeman detained a woman, pulling her away from the crowd by her hair, pursued by a man yelling “Elle est une femme!” Amongst the disorder, non combatants struggled to escape, narrowly avoiding blows from both the police and antifa. I was stuck in a moral paradox of wanting to show solidarity towards the protestors, while also trying to distinguish myself from them.
Though my ears had nearly become numb to the explosive vibrations, one boomed louder than the rest. From it blossomed a cloud of smoke that flooded over the crowd. People did not reacting to it well. Somehow this cloud of smoke was different than the others. Then it hit me. Tear gas. The stench overtook my eyes, nose and mouth. Thank god for ear drums. The harder I coughed the worse it got. Lewis saw me coughing and lent me his extra shirt to breath into. He the motioned for us to reverse direction and leave the parade. Finally. But pushing our way through the mosh was no easy task. We passed the McDonald’s now being recovered by firefighters and authorities. As we passed I saw that someone had written ‘Go Vegan’ all over the walls and snuck in a short laugh in between coughs.
We took the exit street to the left of the McDonalds where we were met with another crowd. At the front of it were a line of military police blocking the exit. They were in full SWAT gear and wouldn’t let anyone leave. There were old men and women, children and parents at the front of the crowd begging the officers to let them pass. The officers just stood as still as statues, not reacting to any of their plees. I had a high school teacher who told me, “To do their jobs well, cops and soldiers have to be brainwashed.” I never really understood what that mean until this day. That meant that a Gen d’Arme dressed in full SWAT gear wouldn’t even let an old couple, coughing from tear gas through their street block.
We sat there waiting for another 45 minutes, barely shielded from the painful smog , until someone told us that the police were letting people out by the Seine. We then reentered the crowd to see a flow of people heading for the river. We join. Some combattants still attacked police but the numbers had waned, leaving the anti-fascist outnumbered, and underprepared. Now with the crowds of non-violent actors leaving the men and women in black would be easier to spot out.
Slowly herded down the quai by the riotous police, Lewis and I stopped to regroup and reflect in the Jardin Tino-Rossi. I was amazed that within a 5 minute walk of the protest, the rest of Paris was continuing on comme toujours. Lewis offered me a cigarette, but I had already inhaled too much smoke that day. We looked at each other, eyes bloodshot. In Lewis eye I could see euphoria. I could see pleasure and pride. I could see satisfaction that his late nights of reading political theory had finally been realized. I could see that this wouldn’t be his last protest.
As for me, though I could not look into my own eyes, I knew what they portrayed. They portrayed anger. They portrayed fear. Overall, they portrayed disillusionment. I was angry at the anti-fascists. They had ravaged the most beautiful city in the world, accomplishing nothing. I feared the police. They were well armed, prepared and not afraid to use force. Most of all I was disillusioned that both groups who claimed to protect people put them in danger.