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La Serveuse: Notes on the movement against the loi de travail, by a waitress

By waitress, 24 May 2016

This will be a collection of notes, written by a waitress, that attempts to put together experiences from Paris and from the rest of France during themouvement contre le loi travail. It will begin, retrospectively, to piece things together stuff dating from March – May, as well as speaking of the present moment.

May 9th - 19th (Manifestations, Paris)

The previous two weeks were just as enervating as the ones preceding, if not more, since the French police have newly discovered nasses (net, like fishing net), also known as ‘being kettled’. Several heavy tear-gassings and nullifying kettlings converged with an extremely low-pressure system, a lot of rain, and many people who were already under slept from April and May. Tuesday the 10th, for example, began with a 7am call for blockades, a word of the week. The plan, it seems, was to block Bercy, the train and bus terminus, since there was a strike from Sud, a rail workers’ union, the same day. This was well organised and began at Opera, where early risers boarded the metro, going on several lines, and in several directions, before ending up in a wild chase – in the station, out of the station, back in the station. The cat and mouse dispersed around the station of Dugommier at about 8.30am, which was encircled bygendarmerie. Manuel Valls passed the law sometime around lunchtime using a special decree 49-3, which was brought in during the instability between the 3rd and 4th republics. 


The weather all week was so low pressure, so as to invite serious, lingering headaches, rain with no relief. Assemblée Nationale at 18h was obscured by mist, flares and smoke. A heavy CRS and Gendarmerie presence gradually pushed everyone back, split them. One manif sauvage, a little naively, since there were only 50 people, set off around 19h, after which the rest were kettled on the quayside, forced down next to the water, where the windows of luxury boats displayed Parisians? tourists? serenely lindyhopping or swingdancing in a top window. Police blocked the quay, letting only fluorescent runners through, then fired off teargas . Protesters ran, stopped, since there was nowhere to go. River police – how mobile they are, in any circumstance – passed on speedboats as kids threw what they could: missiles, pieces of scaffolding. The gas continued for several hours, as, completely trapped on the road above the quay, unable to breathe, or to descend, lungs filled over and over with acrid gas.


Thursday the 12th was another manifestation, beginning near Montparnasse. There were clashes at first, tear gas mingling with passers by. Half way through it ended up on a grand place next to a huge building. No one knew what the building was, only, they knew quickly, that it was controlled by military, armed guards. Something began to happen in the square, but as people entered a side gate, this fact was discovered as the army came out with rifles cocked. Tear gas rained down again. A solitary shopping bag filled with paves (paving stones, taken amidst the crowd) was left on the ground in the chaos as CS gas was once again sent into the midst, the march was so tied up that it couldn’t move forward, although some breakaways later achieved road blockades. The march was sent back to where it had started, and so began a long and confusing half kettle. Everyone eventually went home. On this, Thursday 12th’s march, the CGT were openly collaborating with the police to control the demonstration, and this was evident as the vans broke through police lines, without helping pedestrian protesters, or those younger, or masked, through as well.


That evening the Beaux-Arts art school in St Germain des Près was occupied, and an Assemblée Générale began around midnight. This occupation led to several disputes, particularly as many students attending the university made positive appraisals of it, saying that it was different to any other institution, they loved and identified with it. The occupation resulted in two computers being broken, which eventually split the student body, and a castle was built out of street plackets in the middle of the courtyard, resembling one that was built on April 28th at République, before it was violently evicted. The Beaux-Artsoccupation was evicted in the early hours of Saturday morning but was beautiful while it lasted.


The dialogue about casseurs (breakers, rioters) gradually began to permeate the atmosphere over the next few days, as it hadn’t seemed to before. On Sunday a friend and I were inveigled into going to an old lady’s house for an aperitif, in Denfert Rochereau. The old lady was an aristocrat, the daughter of two modernist painters, her mother, a lover and student of Picabia. Set up on a divan against her interieur: plants, totems, highly stylised paintings of naked women (an ominous and faceless knight, in a suit of armour, clasping the breasts), she articulated her distaste for the manifestations, for the casseurs “I hate it when they come here, they break everything… they aren’t from Paris, they come from the banlieues , they just want to break everything”. Her racist description of youth from the banlieues, as creatures with compulsions to break seemed to fit with the general sterility of her interior, in which living things had been slowly petrified, stylised.


On Tuesday, the collaboration of the CGT with the police continued. The Service d’Ordre de CGT, who are a section of that union, were out in a huge block. The SO are basically self-elected strongmen from each union who are supposed to control the march - apparently this didn’t always have a collaborative aspect – in the last weeks their aim seems to be to try to get the head of the demonstration. They resemble, in their helmets and build, the BAC (the undercover cops). Some Service d’Ordre – two pathetic Stalinist men with long sticks - had attacked the march on Thursday, and the crowd rushed at them, throwing whatever they could – bins, rubbish, bottles. The discourse against the casseurs (breakers) has seemed to strengthen in the last week, since the Loi was passed, and it seems the unions want to strengthen this distinction, between those who ‘work’ (in more secure, unionised jobs) and ironically those who can’t work or don’t in the same capacity (so, the salariat, précariat, the kids from the banlieue, the MILI: Mouvement Inter-Luttes Indépendents the lycéens). Or at least, this is what the distinction seems to me, to mean.


Anyway, on Tuesday’s manifestation, which followed generally the same trajectory from the École Militaire through teargas, molotovs, disengagement grenades, burning bins and flying bottles to place Denfert Rochereau, theService d'Ordre formed a kettle as people tried to escape from a police charge and an intoxicated square. The SO are dangerous too, since they come to demonstrations with iron sticks, baseball bats, helmets, pepper-spray and gloves with weights in the knuckles. Then the demonstration was interesting, the divisions crystallised, the SO were surrounded on both sides.


Tuesday night, on République, in preparation for a police demonstration on Wednesday called to stop “la haine anti-flics” (the hatred of cops), people were covering the floor to commemorate the dates of deaths of civilians killed by police since the 1950s. In permanent white and blue paint, these dates were alongside graffiti that spoke to the French police’s history of collaboration with the Nazis. Rough translation of 1ft tall letters: “ALL OF THE DEPORTED GRANDPARENTS AND CHILDREN HATE THE POLICE”. The demonstration, to “stop the hatred of the police”, would of course require a counter demonstration, since the police brutality has been so severe. Since such a large proportion of police (CRS) in France vote FN (national front), it was suspected that there would also be a large fascist presence. It was rumoured that, coming in solidarity with the police, there would be, in contrast with each other, the LDJ (a fascist Zionist group: Ligue de Défense Juive) as well as the followers of Alain Soral (an neo-Nazi and virulent anti-Semite). On the morning, we turned up too late, to find extremely tense lines of police, hundreds of people (left wing and antifascist) being expelled, spilling out of the square in hundreds. We were always five minutes behind but found our way to Quai de Valmy, where there were plumes of acrid black smoke coming from the remains of a police car.


 The anti-police demonstration was now dispersed, but at République, it was impossible to get in to the square, since it was protected by gendarmerie, and a rally of police inside, far off, near the statue, with smoke flares of their own. Peach smoke. Marion Maréchal LePen was inside, giving some kind of speech as the star of the fascists. Kids were outside the cordon, a small group of resistance, a little sad. I overheard a teenager say “Marine Le Pen? Sérieux?”. Activists were saying that police were not the problem, it was the fascists, and there was a furious argument in which several Italians said: it could only ever be the army who would join a popular uprising, never the police, since they vote FN. Apparently a police march, against the fascists and against the police was arriving to support the anti police march. It seemed pretty depressing, the square (a few weeks ago, albeit a liberal and fairly boring site of multi-various political activity, but nonetheless a place) had been cleared, forcefully, and now a fascist rally was being facilitated. People were arguing that police could join the movement against the government, and seemed extremely confused about history. Italian communists hung around, too excited to leave, too tired by the lacklustre atmosphere. 


Thursday 19th was a huge manifestation beginning at Nation and finishing at Place d’Italie. The cortège – the ‘autonomous’ part of the manifestation, that is the part which is not affiliated to any union – was huge (10 000 people, they say), and took the front of the demonstration. In a furious argument later, two friends discussed the way student moderates had moved over from the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste to join this more autonomous part of the march. There were some clashes, and at Place D’italie police stormed the square, making charges at protesters, and threw the usual gas. The Service d’Ordrewere again attacking the march. This became the site of many clashes, before things were disbanded.