Demonstrations Of Helplessness And Hope In Paris

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‘Climate Angel’ and New Matilda columnist Dr Liz Conor is in Paris to protest, at a time protest is not so welcome.

As you make your way down to baggage collection at Charles de Gaulle airport, Australian notables line the walls in greeting. Cate Blanchett looking tussled as she self-anoints with some opulent unguent. Hugh Jackman looking dapper, striding forth in a rolex. They were all there. Smiling intently.

‘cept I may have been hallucinating, having halved the earth, and in spite of such winged pleasantries as refresher towels and a complete season of Wolf Hall. It may well have only been Cate and Hugh waiting there in salutation. But hell, don’t they stand in for us all? Armed with Rolexes and smeared in whatever it was, by now we all know celebrities are more representative than most.

So I fancied I issued forth from this nativist primal scene like Cate and Hugh’s sunkissed spawn. I may have been sporting an Uber bullseye imprinted on my brow, from trying to sleep with my head wedged into the cup indent on the server tray. Thus I got waylaid into a dinged up sedan on the someteenth floor of the Charles de Gaulle carpark to be spirited away to Paris. To this moment the driver awaits my call: “I feel it,” he told me, presumably that distinct urge of needing to transport me around Paris some more, failing to notice the baggage collection jetlag had reduced me to. Ah the transports.

The transports of spring. Nope, wrong side of the world. The transports of joy. Nope wrong city. For Paris c’est truly triste: subdued and pensive. Paris feels like the shark in Foyles War (you missed the shark?!) jumped so far it landed in a wormhole and hauled us 65 years into the present while tossing us like some baby seal morsel clear over the English channel (more bleepbrain).

Alright there are no sandbags and the windows aren’t taped diagonally, but when a paramilitary squad nonchalantly weave past in Disruptive Pattern Combat Uniform (for as we all know Paris is desert background) cradling their semi-automatics just after you’ve navigated through a platoon of riot police coolly stalking the arcades you can’t help but wonder what theatre of war you’ve entered.

Public space is demonstrative at the best of times but in the worst of times it becomes an epoch of credulity, a season of darkness, a winter of despair with nothing before us and all directed the other way, with the noisiest of columnists (that would be me and Thom Mitchell, comprising the Paris bureau of New Matilda) insisting Paris be received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison. (free baguette to anyone picking up ref)

But really the massacres distilled terror down to its purist form – the indiscriminate carnage of civilians going about their lives under a veneer, now a pall, of candour: the simplicity of leisurely gatherings seeking collective diversion now winking in shallow votary candles. What is so hideous is the media strategising, the unhinged attention seeking of this orchestrated public flourish of slaying. Their demonstration of what a home front feels like for too many too often and too elsewhere. A murderous demonstration of impotence.

And so the marauding squadrons are demonstrating security. And the actual demonstrators? The climate activists who have descended on Paris in droves are still denied public space.

On Friday the Place de Republique was evenly divided between the deeply affecting display of memorial – the piles of flowers bruising in the cold. Circling, it is impossible to assimilate this loss into some sort of prosaic materiality. And who could seek to comprehend the reality of someone lost to you in this way thicken every painful breath you draw for the rest of your days.

But what this outpouring also demonstrates is the significance of public space, of squares, agoras, plazas, for sharing of the burden of unbearable sorrow.

The night before 29NOV demonstrations at the Place de Republique, the other half of the square was taken up with thousands of citoyens testing the ban on public demonstrations – a display of disobedience, right alongside the expression of what it is in Parisian hearts, leading up to the COP21 climate talks.

Ringing the Place, riot police skulked on street corners. Hundreds of them. Their armory cantilevered over their shoulders and shins, bolstered batons criss-crossed with belts of pistols, helmets dangling, shields propped on their tank toes.

Still they waited. Call me naïve, but they appeared to be hanging back for any sign of trouble and this both solaced and distressed me. They weren’t there to disperse the demonstrators, or to enforce the ban on public protests. That would come after when the speakers were placed under house arrest the next day at the 29NOV demonstrations. The police too demonstrated that they were ready to deflect, to beat back civic noncompliance, perfecting the character of the subdual state. In the Place de Republique of all places.

To storm into the throng at any sign of trouble. The trouble with trouble is it has assumed a different guise in recent weeks. The shifting parameters of threat have been entirely recalibrated. The next day I joined 29Nov, the planned mass mobilisation, the People’s Climate March. The organisers negotiated for us to form a human chain to get around the ban on gatherings of any size.

I entered this theatre of war as an Angel, for peace has become something intangible and otherworldly. We need to bring it back home. What was demonstrated by the empty shoes was deeply affecting for it referenced Parisians denied their civil rights, but also the dead. The Angels left the square and walked along the human chain to express solidarity with these courageous Parisians. By the time we returned the square the shoes were packed away in trucks on their way to charity. But the square now whoomphed in pulses in an upsurge on adrenalin. The anarchists were circling the square under their flags. The riot cops had moved up the arteries and blocked them. We were kettled but found a way out in the far corner.

Security, defiance, hope, impotence. Paris demonstrated a whorl of contention and affect. As #COP21 progresses, climate activists will find a way to express the voice of civil society. For there can be no peace on earth while our atmosphere is choked with carbon.

Liz Conor

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.

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