10,000 Empty Shoes And A Mist Of Pepper Spray Open Paris Climate Talks

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Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was supposed to visit a memorial for those killed in the Paris terror attacks, but was diverted after climate protestors clashed with police. New Matilda’s environmental reporter Thom Mitchell was on the scene.

Around 10,000 empty pairs of shoes rested solemnly in La Place de la Republique, in the heart of Paris on Sunday, the day before make-or-break-climate change negotiations get underway in the French capital.

They were placed there to stand in stead of the hundreds of thousands expected to have marched if not for a ‘State of Emergency’ ban on political gatherings in public spaces, itself defied by more than 5,000 people who swarmed into the historic political space later that afternoon.

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‘Climate angels’ walk among the shoes. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell).

Media has widely reported that the protest turned violent, and footage shows there were some masked belligerents in the crowd who threw shoes and reportedly rocks at the massive riot squad which ringed in the streets surrounding the square. The vast majority of demonstrators, though, had remained there after earlier gatherings in the morning which involved a carnival of colour and climate-inspired costumes as a substitute for the huge mobilisation which had been planned before terror attacks took 130 lives in Paris two weeks ago.

But the demonstration ended in tears – and lots of them – induced by pepper spray and gas fired by the riot squad.

At two o’clock Paris time the demonstrators advanced towards police lines in the south east corner of Place de la Republique chanting, among other things, “liberté”. By half past, after they’d been repelled to the diagonally opposite corner of the square, the hundreds-strong riot squad were firing volleys of teargas into the crowd.

I’d scaled some scaffolding to observe the demonstration from above, and was too far away to make out what provoked the confrontation, but demonstrators later told me that far-left political activists had hurled things at the riot cops. That’s certainly the line being run by the police force, which advised the public to avoid the ‘violent elements’ at the square on Twitter, and by the media that has reported on the conflict too.

The French government has noted that troublemakers were in the minority, but the widespread emphasis on violence seems disproportionate. It’s a pretty reductionist message; and let’s face it, it’s a politically opportune one for a government that wants to deflect scandal as it tries to shepherd the international community through the palaver of reaching a global accord to keep the rise in average global temperatures to below two degrees. Particularly in the context of concerns over 24 activists being placed under house arrest which prominent Canadian environmentalist Naomi Klein, for example, has said amounts to “shamefully banning peaceful demonstrations and using emergency powers to pre-emptively detain key activists”.

Sunday’s demonstration, even after things got messy, was as much focused on the subject of activists’ earlier demands, to “change the system not the climate, [because]there is no planet B”, as they were on agitating cops or protesting the State of Emergency. It was part of a global movement which attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators over the weekend, and also spread through Paris in the form of a ‘human chain

But of course when the initial round of tear gas choked the square, the first of five or more at half past two, everybody copped it. One woman I spoke with later who wasn’t at the protest, but on the train, said you could smell it in the next subway station along.

By three in the afternoon a chopper was flying overhead: it might have been a broadcaster’s, but French authorities might also have felt that the bare minimum 70 police vans filled with armed and sometime balaclava-wearing men, the teargas and the pepper spray just wasn’t enough, and a chopper might help mitigate the terrorist threat.

By five past activists had formed a human chain around Marianne, a giant bronze statue in the centre of the square which symbolises the French Republic and its claimed values of ‘fraternity, liberty and equality’. That group appear to have made up most of those arrested.

Crowds of 60 or so were hemmed in against walls and bussed away in loads. Media is reporting that police made 200 arrests and 174 people were taken into custody, and that Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has conceded only a “small minority” were bent on making trouble.

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French Riot Police. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell).

Protestors told me it’s hard to know exactly why the people who were arrested were, and not others. Many of the demonstrators said that there was no warning before the policing got heavy. “There were a lot of people here, yes, and nobody was telling them what to do. Peaceful people, and it was actually a confrontation started by the police,” protestor Erwin Albu told New Matilda.

“Everybody who was kept in the middle of this square, they were just pushed, pushed, police were not saying anything about what they expect from the people.

“This is what happened. Nobody really reacted in a normal way, because they have to announce what they want to do, what they want. [That’s] what they should have done, but they haven’t done it.

“They were just pushing people, in the middle of the square, and they would just pick them up.”

He said the crowd control was indiscriminate, aggressive, and confusing, and so did the dozen or so others I spoke to later. From my vantage point on high I couldn’t tell either way, but even with a full view of the square, and the police blocking off access to all the streets running away from Place de la Republique, the intention of the police crowd control strategy seemed unclear.

When I clambered down and joined the throng – by this time about a third the size it was at its peak around three o’clock – demonstrators were still milling around, being pushed back this way and that by lines of riot cops 60 or more strong, before being driven away in different directions again.

People were cleaning up around the base of the statuesque Marianne, which has served as a vigil to the 130 people gunned down by Islamic terrorists on November 13. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had been set to visit La Republique to pay his respects later on Sunday, but instead diverted to the Bataclan where the attacks themselves occurred.

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Protesters surround Marianne. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell).

He will speak at the United Nations conference on climate later today, along with 150 other heads of state or government, about Australia’s (negligible) contribution to cleaning up the global reliance on polluting fossil fuels.

There were undoubtedly a good serve of disruptive scapegoat elements among the crowd, but it was ultimately a defiant climate demonstration. As Turnbull turns his mind to justifying Australia’s paltry efforts on Monday afternoon, one protestor’s message seems particularly prescient.

Roughly translated it read: “sorry for the disturbance, we are trying to save the world”. So too, no matter what your view on the widely condemned and forbidden mass demonstration, were the activists who had staged much less raucous demonstrations earlier in the day.

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Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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