In France, October 9

by James Conley


The first sign that things were afoot was the loud chop of helicopter rotors above the cafe. Echoing off the medieval streets of the capital of Brittany, the sound was magnified while also scrambling the helicopter’s location. In American-accented, intermittent English, the millennial waiter impatiently speculated that there was a protest of some kind. He had no details, and was far more concerned with finding the correct English words to convey the care and attention he put into the pour-over coffees on the menu.

The helicopter entered a slow, circular holding pattern as vans of police began disgorging their passengers onto the street. As the helicopter made its counterclockwise way, and the police marched in groups of ten to take positions on medievally skewed street “corners,” the waiter extolled the virtues of cold brewed coffee. Glancing up on occasion, he was perturbed not at the police presence, but that protesters would be ruining his business day. His torn jeans, man-bun, and millennial love of sophisticated ways to make coffee did not make him a comrade of any protest. 

Down Rue d’Orleans, just before the Palais du Commerce, was the first set of assembled police.

It is impossible not to think of pawns on a chessboard when beholding rows of assembled riot police in monochrome sci-fi armor: coordinated, restricted, ordered, and able to strike only with diagonal moves.

The protestors were decidedly the opposite: apparently the ragtag common worker, relying only on the correctness of the cause to supply the strength to #resist the oppression. The cause was a bit unclear, but there was no doubt that the protest was organized by two of the largest labor unions in France, and was part of a coordinated series of actions across France on October 9.

“Together to conquer another future.”

The clarity and emotional attractiveness of these archetypal roles—riot police versus the vulnerable workers—was interrupted by the appearance of masked and goggled youths, often with harsh looks in their eyes. Nothing had begun other than people gathering on the street in preparation for a walk, and yet a handful of faces were already covered. 

“Against Jupiter [Macron] let’s go storm the sky.”

The first sign of trouble came when Fabrice Lerestif (General Secretary of the Force Ouvrière union) confronted a line of riot police blocking a street. Several minutes of tension led to the pre-masked youth engaging in several minutes of violence. Where the black pawn gendarmerie were uniform in their role, the protesters had multiple roles: Lerestif withdrew, along with the casually dressed and unmasked protesters, allowing the bemasked to move up and bring the violence. 

Fabrice Lerestif leads the crowd into the police line.

After the first confrontation, the parade moved up a bit and stalled again. This time, other layers of organization within the protesters emerged—the frontline protesters shoved and hit the police and then briefly withdrew while glass bottles filled with paint were tossed from the equivalent of an archery line. This time the police responded with tear gas. This time it was clear that while the police were playing only with a line of pawns (albeit pawns with teargas), the protestors had a full set of pieces.

After these first conflicts, the police seemed to feel confident that limits had been established and largely withdrew from the parade. Nevertheless, the crowd continued to seek confrontations by provoking not only with taunts and shouts, but by setting fires with flares and tossing more glass bottles. The point of the provocations was unclear.

Likewise, the overall “resistance” narrative was unclear. The protesters carried signs which roughly translate as “together to conquer another future” and “against Jupiter [Macron] let’s go storm the sky.” As reported by The Local France:

Two of the more hardline leftist trade unions Force Ouvrier and the CGT have called on workers, pensioners and students to join their protest against the [Macron] government's policies which they claim are "destroying France's social model".

For these trade unions the government's policies follow "a logic of individualization which undermines solidarity and social justice".

So, for these #resistors, the new future is one where the individual is compelled to become part of the group. Which goes far to explain why a millennial cafe worker who is obsessed with finding the best way to make coffee sees no fraternity with the hashtag resistance.