Paris: a protester looks on as riot police form a blockade

It was when the anarchists started using the votive candles for those who died in the Paris attack as missiles that they really lost me.

They had arrived to protest against the French government’s cancellation of the climate march in the wake of the terror attacks of November 13. It was, one said, against everything for which the statue of Place de la Republique stands. “The state of France was founded on the right to manifestation,” he said.

And yet, it was this very right to expression and assembly that they crushed for their fellow citizens.

Earlier, a peaceful, joyful event was manifesting hope as well as concern over the next two weeks of diplomatic wrangling at the UN climate conference, COP 21, on the outskirts of this city. There were symbolic actions in which thousands of pairs of shoes were placed in lieu of marchers. A human chain was tolerated by police for about an hour, with 10,000 people said to have joined in. Clowns capered, children ran around. The atmosphere at lunchtime had been carnival-like.

But then a black-clad group chanting anti-capitalist slogans began circling the monument. Two started to sing La Marseillaise but were shouted down by the climate crowd around them.

“It is a song for war and what we want is peace,” said Arora Medieu, who had turned up to beg world leaders for a strong deal on climate change. “Two weeks ago people sang La Marseillaise to join the sadness the French people had. Today is nothing about what happened two weeks ago. Today we want to show the whole world we can unite for a beautiful cause. We don’t have to sing for war.”

Ten minutes later we were all running, choking for the exit to a side street after anarchists charged the police and were repelled by teargas, flashbangs and batons.

Police quickly dispersed the peaceful element of the crowd by firing dozens of tear gas canisters into the main square, leaving 500-700 protesters kettled for hours. Hundreds of missiles were thrown on both sides. There were a few sprained ankles, and some people were hit by shards of glass. I saw a clown get teargassed. Yes, a clown, crying. It ended with more than 200 arrests.

It’s wrong to say those who engaged the police were entirely at fault, or that they even started the violence. The heavy-handedness of the post-terror security response — especially the ridiculous pre-emptive detention of 24 climate activists earlier this week — and the cancellation of a peaceful march under the threat of terror has deeply unsettled the French, many of whom may justifiably wonder who is being defended by these measures.

The draconian moves undoubtedly exacerbated the trouble on Sunday. As we stood in the kettle, at least one protester told me he had come down to la Republique specifically because of this.

“It’s not just about climate change,” said one protester. “It’s about the current state in France. The streets belong to us.”

Yet the desecration of the memorial to the dead of the Bataclan concert hall and the other attacks just 17 days before showed that this group cared little for the type of bold symbolism they appear to claim for their own.

In another lame moment, a protester reportedly picked up the shoes of Pope Francis, which he sent to support the climate activists’ “non-march”, and tossed them at the police. It was a perfect representation of their usurpation of the climate cause.

In its own bumbling, bureaucratic way the climate conference is the antithesis of the nihilism of Islamic State and the authoritarianism of the police state. It is our attempt to put differences aside and come up with a just solution to an existential threat. Climate campaigners are desperate to have the voice of the public heard around Paris as the negotiations unfold. They are already under siege from the French police but are trying to play the government’s game.

Immediately after the violence, climate group 350.org released a statement that cautiously supported the right to assembly but highlighted the difference between their own action and the one that followed. Campaigner Nicolas Haeringer said:

“The human chain that stretched along Boulevard Voltaire was a beautiful and powerful event, the type of mobilization that should be allowed to continue in Paris while the climate talks are underway and beyond. We will stand against any attempts by the French authorities to use the incidents this afternoon to unnecessarily clamp down on civil liberties and prevent the types of demonstrations that are at the heart of any democracy and climate progress.”

Now, it appears that this will be unlikely. Not only will the government crackdown only become more fierce (not necessarily the fault of the anarchists), but climate actions will have to avoid any hint of a mass participation, lest it dissolve into more violence.

The headlines today will focus on the clashes and the teargas. In France, many papers are enraged at the use of the candles as ammunition. Many are calling the anarchists “climate activists”. Those who rightfully but oh-so unthinkingly vented their rage in Place de la Republique have done more hurt to the cause of the climate than they helped their own.

Peter Fray

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