Coming from the south on Avenue d’Italie on foot or bike things were obviously out of the ordinary, impossible as it may be to define ordinary in France at this moment. Long lines of cars pressed together, red and white tape strung everywhere it wasn’t five minutes before, sidewalks lined with gargantuan tour buses, their windows dark, no riders, no one at the wheel, enormous docile circus animals their eyes pitch black. Something was up. I stopped to talk to two RATP workers lounging in a small electric bus half on the sidewalk.
The early arrivals were entering Place d’Italie, a large roundabout in the 13th which has shrugged off its reputation as the shopping mall on top of the hospital district to become one of the nerve centers for the ongoing grève (strike) of transport workers, something which, at precisely this moment, is threatening to become a strike in sectors across the country, if you believe what’s going round. There’s talk of it. So much for my plan to pass a companionable hour in the library overlooking the circle in a quiet nook full of novels by Fante and Faulkner, where I’m trawling through Satori in Paris.
There are beaucoup d’analyses of France on offer these days, from the Guardian on the right to the socialist sites, but maybe you can spare a minute while I put my five centimes in. Macron is a minority President who came out of near-nowhere in a year (2017) of weak candidates, and with the Socialist Party collapsing in a heap, still barely mustered 20% at the polls. Not a lot to govern on. He has staked his regime on changes to the retirement system, which no one was shouting for and which no panel of experts declared was teetering on collapse, and in three years he hasn’t convinced very many that his plan is the solution. It just happens to be an idée fixée for bankers on both sides of the Atlantic – they want to get their hands on the retirement funds, which constitute an enormous slush fund for the government. And unlike the writers at the Guardian, who still swoon over Handsome Manny Macron, it’s fair to say that the European states are watching developments closely. The country, if not up in arms, is certainly agitated, and the editorial writers are going to town with malaise, pointing fingers at targets like Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union. The rabble in the street meanwhile stay busy, making a bloody stinking mess on everyone’s behalf.
The police closed off Place d’Italie before I could pass through. They seemed in a jolly mood, curious given the bad publicity they received a little earlier. Over a year since the Gilets Jaunes revolts started, and the country’s hierarchy has finally owned up to what they’re calling illegitimate violence. (May I suggest overzealous enforcement ?) The cops are blowing people’s eyes out, killed a Paris delivery man by crushing his larynx on January 9, they’re hovering around or charging at you at every demo and finally it became impossible to deny. Numerous cases will be going to trial shortly.
So did I want to get in or not ? What choice did I have ? I could have taken the long way around. People are coming up Boule’ de l’Hôpital. Down the hill, there was a queue as far as the Salpêtrière, over half a mile away. The protesters start setting off flares and a whiff of tear gas drifted across the circle, leaving a biting sting across the pores of your skin.
Things are changing rapidly now. We’re almost 50 days into the strike, but it’s more like a heavyweight fight in the late rounds. Macron, the Jupiterian President, is fighting for his life. He promised to change the system but here we are in the 8th and he appears to be losing a bagarre he went out of his way to pick. He doesn’t take the scrawny unions on himself, he’s not an Olympian for nothing. He sends in Castaner and Schiappa and the others to do his dirty work, while he navigates elsewhere on the global stage. Castaner, the country’s top cop, a touch slow on the bounce, allows after more than a year’s evidence that the police may have gone too far at times while the self-styled militant feminist Marlène Schiappa, Secretary for Equality, lectures protesters that they are not to say they’d been gassed because of the word’s association with the Holocaust. So what are we to call it then ? Generously doused with dispersal juice ? I’ll always be grateful for the friendly Sisters of Mercy who circulate among us with eye drops.
The truth tends to lurk in the shadows. As I moved around Friday’s manif – the first of a long weekend, and perhaps a desperate attempt at a knockout punch – I saw posters with Emmanuel Macron’s head imposed on Louis the 16th’s body or tucked under Thatcher’s coiffe. We know what happened to Louis. Manny will be spared that. But Thatcher is another story: she was done in by the Conservative hierarchy, who were no longer convinced of her usefulness. What if Prime Minister Édouard Philippe throws in the towel, tired of offering one pointless concession after another ? (“Useless! Useless! / – Heavy rain driving / Into the sea” – Kerouac) Why did Macron include Jean-François Cirelli, President of BlackRock France, in his New Year’s Legion of Honor list ? That was, in one journo’s phrase, throwing oil on the tracks. Was it a consolation prize to one of the behind-the-scenes operators who profits from limited access to France’s retirement funds ? There are only two years until the next election, and so far no viable left-wing presidential candidate has dared to show his or her face, while the old regime bets on the old familiar gueules and gowns. If Macron’s reform does go down, the country risks having a doomed, punch-drunk executive stumbling around the ring until 2022. Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake, as some famous general put it.
Perhaps the most engaging political discussion I had all week wasn’t at a demonstration at all but simply walking around Paris with a young Chinese dissident in France for the first time. He asked me every question he could think of, and I lobbed a few in return. What I didn’t have to explain to him was how rare such a sustained popular uprising is at this historical moment.
As sharp observers will have already gathered, there was no knockout punch. Transport workers in Paris, feeling the pinch in their pockets, have gone back to work for a week, a fact which led overenthusiastic Guardian cheerleaders to declare the strikes over. Things pick up again this Friday, when the union leaders and the rank and file put heads together. In their heart of hearts the French have a perverse streak and they love a good stalemate, where everything is out in the open and possible, as opposed to a decisive victory, which shuts down the debate. They long ago adjusted to the strike’s many inconveniences.
Jupiterian Manny, never a mean puncher but a slick dancer who too often thinks he can overwhelm his opponents with eloquent jive, seems to have lost control of his corner. This is a government in continual evolution, prone to scandals of the newly enthroned followed by cabinet shuffles, where Messaging, that modern cult of everyone saying the same thing as if it were Sunday morning, has never quite been the forte. One need look no further than the young Marquis O, junior minister for Digital Affairs, suavely going on about the unavoidable taxes awaiting the tech giants on the 12th of this month; but come the 21st and the clean air of Davos, wiser heads retreated, saying they’ll call the whole thing off now that Trump’s cooked up a deal. That’s resolve for you. If this is the prize fight of the Macron years, we seem to have wandered into a strange dimension where the clock is at a standstill and both fighters are swinging wildly while no punch ever lands.
17-22 January, 2020 Paris.