Of Casseurs and Ninja Turtles


The French Government may have backed down last week on its controversial proposals to ‘liberalise’ youth employment laws, but the effects of the months of demonstrations and strikes are still evident in Paris.

For my daughter’s drawing contest at the local fete, an eight year-old drew a full-page portrait of a CRS officer the armour-clad, special services police used for riot control in Paris. This kid had obviously been watching TV (or just looking out his window) where these plexi-shielded warriors were shown confronting students and union members as the protested, and kids who had come in from the suburbs just to wreak havoc.

There is nothing quite like facing a phalanx of CRS officers. They were purportedly invented in 1968 and manned by French Army veterans from the Algerian War of Independence. As a student in 1986 (not 1968 I’m not that old!), I recall a demonstration where the 19th century Hôtel de Ville (Paris’s Town Hall) was encircled by these dark ninja turtles with their shields held outwards. I knew then how Asterix felt, faced with the Roman soldiers’ testudo formation in the fight for ancient Gaul. Terrifying but impressive no wonder the eight year-old at my daughter’s school represented the CRS officer as a sinister kind of super hero.

Rioters and police clash in Paris

How to explain what was happening on Paris’s streets to outsiders? For a start, I think it’s important to emphasise that we are talking about particular streets you need to understand the demonstrations in Paris in terms of the ‘tradition of Revolution.’ Since 1789, when angry Parisians stormed the Bastille in protest against Louis XVI’s troops surrounding Paris, this city has been a symbolic space of protest. Certain streets, avenues and squares are chosen, often for the resonance of their names Places de la Republique, Nation and, of course, Bastille where the accursed prison once stood.

Strikes and demonstrations are a part of life, and protests by students and ‘lyceens’ (high-school children) tend to be the most lively as well as the most dangerous. Thus, when Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin tried to push through his new free-market work law, the CPE (Contrat Première Embauche), proposing short-term contracts for under-26 year-olds where employers could fire someone without giving a reason, the cards were set for confrontation.

The movement started in Rennes, where the students of that Breton city blocked the university entrance with chairs and tables. In the capital, the University of Nanterre a uni created in 1968 and Jussieu, my old campus, were next. Militants usually pile furniture in front of all entrances and organise ‘general assemblies’ (another tradition dating back to 1789). Students then gather, vote in favour of a strike and progam the demo. Some universities in France were blocked for five weeks, and many highschools closed.

The demos were big one million in the first one in Paris and, according to the unions, three million in the one on Tuesday 28 March. The French population were largely sympathetic 63 per cent of them saying they were opposed to the new law.

It all starts in good fun, of course. The crowd, the songs and slogans. You get to paint t-shirts and signs with threats against the government ‘De Villepin, Your trial period is over,’ ‘contrat poubelle’ (Garbage Contract), and wistfully, ‘More teaching jobs, fewer CRS.’

If you had to go to work, it was less fun when transport workers joined the strikers Tuesdays were a good day to walk to work. The car was tricky I turned into a street one day, to be greeted by a sea of students carrying banners. Shift into reverse, go back home and take the metro, taking care of course not to park near any universities or large squares. Recently, when I complained of the cold here to a friend in Australia, they suggested I warm myself next to a burning car!

Police dousing protesters with water

The demos started with a party atmosphere but invariably degenerated as the infamous casseurs (looters) moved in, started attacking shops, burning vehicles and launching projectiles at the police. The CRS produced batons, tear gas, water canons, and their latest weapon paint-bomb guns. Offenders were arrested, beaten up and dragged away in paddy wagons bringing the suburban riots of last November into the centre of town. Not a pretty site.

Those opposed to the protest movement kept saying that the street should not govern the country. But in the end, the street the historically inscribed space where French people say, ‘Non!‘ proved to be a very effective mode of expression. And this time, there was something new in the air a new kind of desperation and a feeling that history was being made, a feeling reminiscent of the dark days of Thatcherism in Britain. The Sorbonne was occupied, the Ecole Des Hautes Etudes ransacked.

The students were serious. Why should they be the first targets of neo-liberal reform, they asked. Why was it only those under 26 who were targeted? What kind of a human contract can be cancelled without a reason being given? Who would have rented an apartment to a young person working on a CPE? Who wants to be part of the ‘precarious generation?’

De Villepin’s Government had no answers to these questions.

Now that the CPE has been defeated, the issue is can the French keep their social model, with universal healthcare and job security, and still compete in the global market? A flexible job market may be the new orthodoxy in the West, but try imposing it in a country with a ‘tradition of revoluton.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.