How to take back our streets: lessons from 10 months of resistance in France

GJ streets2

This is a translation of the article ‘Comment reprendre nos rues‘ from the Cerveaux Non Disponibles website. They can be followed on Twitter via @CerveauxNon

Over ten months, the Gilets Jaunes movement has managed again and again to surprise: to surprise the authorities, the police, the media, public opinion. And even the GJs themselves! Apart from determination and a burning desire for change, what has really changed the landscape of social struggle in France is the new reality of totally decentralised and autonomous actions. Blockades, occupations, demonstrations, disorder. So many possibilities that can no longer be found in the standardised world of trade unions, opposition parties, NGOs and other well-established structures.

As protests step up again after the summer of 2019, the field of possibilities seems even more vast. Much more vast than the authorities and the media are saying. But if we are to make waves again, perhaps even bigger ones, we need to think about strategies of struggle, whether that be for the demos which lie ahead or for other kinds of actions. Here are some suggestions and observations which could usefully be developed and fleshed out. Please note that these suggestions are from a clearly insurrectional, even revolutionary, perspective. Since so many GJs (and other citizens) have been calling and hoping for this for several months now, let’s dare to think about it calmly. A sort of manual for “acting like a primitive and planning like a strategist”, as recommended by the poet and resistance fighter René Char.

GJ streets5

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

This has always been the case but is becoming more and more blatantly obvious in France: it is important, even crucial, to take to the streets in pretty large numbers if we are to succeed in staging actions which actually bother the authorities. This does not mean that any huge demo is, per se, a success. The climate marches have shown us over recent months that you can have tens of thousands (or more) in the streets and still not bother the government and the economic powers. On the other hand, if you want to overwhelm an increasingly aggressive police presence, which directly engages you and is increasingly mobile (with motorbikes), you need thousands of people.

The moments that have really scared the authorities over these last months have always been when the balance of power in the streets has tipped towards the GJs because of their numbers. Even with the massive human and material resources at their disposal, the police were unable to control the anger of thousands of protesters, in different parts of town, for the duration of several hours.

The most striking example of this was surely during Acte 23 of the revolt (Ultimatum 2). Following the authorities’ impotence during the first Ultimatum of March 16, they mobilised a huge police presence to prevent any disorder. The Ultimatum page posted, at the last minute, several meet-up points. The GJs who went to these points were, unfortunately for them, met by dozens of riot cops. Nothing could be done. Except that on that same day, there were so many GJs in Paris that a big “authorised” demo got underway at Bercy. There, again, the police had seen this coming and decided to split the demo up into lots of small sections which they could control more easily. But this didn’t work because the march was so huge and determined, to the extent of breaking through several police lines to regroup.

Finally, taking to the streets in large numbers is also a way to protect those who have decided to take action (and not necessarily violently, but in civil disobedience). By their presence, with their bodies, thousands of protesters, even without taking direct action themselves, can help to make a protest really effective and a problem for the authorities. This is how the “front of the demo” emerged a few years back in France. We could also take the example of the revolt in Hong Kong, where this strategy has been taken to an incredible level and where the presence of “basic” protesters is essential for the front-line protesters.

One of the major challenges for the weeks ahead is therefore to achieve turn-outs of the same massive size (or greater) than in November and December. And this is completely possible. Virtually nobody who took part in at least one act of the GJ protests has today been won over by the government. If some of them have disappeared from the streets, it’s due to weariness and/or fear (of police brutality and arrests) rather than because of any change in their opinion on the social and economic situation. Indeed, the numbers of potential resistance fighters are surely even greater than last year. GJs only have to look around themselves: who today is satisfied with Macron and his world? Who isn’t aware of the climate and social crisis? Each of us has to persuade our friends and loved ones to get out into the streets for the upcoming protests.

GJ streets4

PLEASURE AND IMAGINATION

What is most striking about GJ demos today is their repetitive, unchanging quality. But what actually made the movement a success was its capacity to create, to be innovative with its occupations of streets and towns. New songs, new ways of mobilising, new economic blockades (eg: the Champs Elysées). It even had its own language distinct from the norms of social struggle: you can make fun of the succession of “acts” and “ultimatums”, but the GJs have created their own calendar, their own battle terrain and their own way of gathering. When they occupied the roundabouts, everyone found that peculiar. Same thing when they took over motorway toll booths. And same thing again when they decided to head into town centres every Saturday. And when the new songs came along, it was like a minor victory. The creation of a new space for self-expression, exchange and action.

Those in power have always tried to blinker the population and make it think that nothing is possible, apart from expressing your anger through elections or institutionalised struggles (trade unions, political parties, NGOs..) But the reality is very different. Life is a huge playing field. And so are towns and cities.

Nothing annoys the authorities more than people who enjoy coming together and resisting. They do all they can to make protests unpleasant, whereas they can provide the chance for meeting people, for feeling alive, for having fun… Everything they will never know in their comfortable little bourgeois lives. It is therefore important to bring joy, madness, fire and life into the streets. To smash their dream of greyness, to enjoy ourselves but also so that other citizens want to join us. So that they understand that what is happening is not just about burning cars or banks. So that the revolution has its heart not in destruction, but in encounters, complicity, exchange and constructivity.

LESS TELEPHONE, MORE SOLIDARITY

It is important to have photos and videos of what is going on in the streets, notably at the most insurrectional moments and especially when police are being violent, to bear witness to these realities which the authorities try to conceal. But today too many people have got into the habit of whipping out their phone for every burning dustbin or, worse, for the smallest police charge. These people are still part of the movement, in solidarity with it, yet they don’t realise that by filming with their phones they are quitting the ranks of protesters who are capable of actually doing something. They are physically present but can no longer take action. They become spectators. How many videos have we seen of someone being maltreated by the police where nobody is helping them, although dozens of protesters are filming what’s happening? This isn’t about passing judgement and awarding good or bad scores. Each person is free to do whatever they want, not least on a demo. And it is totally understandable to want to film a crunch moment. But you need nevertheless to analyse the phenomenon in a general way and see what it implies for the protest as a whole. And from that vantage point we have to acknowledge the problems with this tendency and be aware that it serves the interests of the authorities because it makes the protest less pro-active and less cohesive. Not forgetting that the videos are sometimes used in evidence against protesters accused of misdemeanors.

It is therefore time to put away your phone and actively take part in the next protests. This could take various forms: singing, running, graffiti, banner-making, keeping other protesters informed, suggesting actions. So many things that the brain stops doing when it sees the protest via the screen of a phone.

GJ streets3

DIVERSITY AND RESPECT FOR PRAXIS

It is important to consider the place and degree of combative action on protests which see themselves as insurrectional. This question is highly complex and sensitive because nobody has the right to set out a precise limit to the moral rightness of combative actions. We all refuse to go along with the framing imposed by society which regards all illegal action as immoraL. It goes without saying for many of us that a Fouquet’s restaurant on fire is no worse than a boss who lays someone off to increase his profits. But this doesn’t mean that smashing or burning is necessarily appropriate for the struggle and for advancing the revolutionary cause.

While we should take care not to condemn a protester who has broken the law, we should also not veer off in the opposite direction and applaud, de facto, all acts of damage or violence. At some moments, in some places, vandalising street furniture or shops or attacking the police can turn out to be strategic mistake and play into the hands of the authorities.

Damage or violence are in no way a yardstick for assessing the success or otherwise of a protest. In either way. Offensive actions are merely tools to reach goals which are more significant than the immediate outcome of a torched car or a ransacked bank.

In a society governed by images and appearance, where the authorities rely on illusion to persuade us that they have everything under control and that there is no alternative, these offensive actions make sense when they help shatter that illusion. It works when whole areas of Paris seem to have slipped out of the authorities’ control despite the deployment of thousands of cops and troops. But to achieve this, it is necessary to create the conditions conducive to such a situation.

It must also be borne in mind that offensive action and rebellion can take very subversive forms without necessarily being violent. Thousands of people on the Paris ring road, on the tracks at a station or occupying a government building can also hurt the powerful.

So let’s refuse to label protesters as violent or non-violent. Only those who fear change have a vested interest in this totally artificial separation. This classification (stigmatisation) is merely a tool for domination. Violence is not immoral in itself. Even the history books sing the praises of resistance fighters who fought evil. Fought in its true sense. In the violent sense.

Act 23 of the Yellow Vests in Paris

ADAPTING TO REAL TIME

In the face of the new strategies for “maintaining law and order” with highly mobile and aggressive police units, it is more than ever necessary for protesters to pay attention and adapt rapidly to situations. In Hong Kong when the police line becomes too dangerous in front of them, the protesters don’t just stay put. Very quickly, the demo moves elsewhere. It is very difficult to take decisions collectively in these situations, especially in a totally horizontal movement without leaders, but it works. And often it is better to take the decision and move rather than remain static for fear of making a mistake.

We should also bear in mind that sometimes confrontation with the cops does not make strategic sense. When the balance of power is clearly tilted in their favour, it is sometimes better to think about alternative solutions which allow protesters to continue to occupy the space, to blockade, to be on the offensive. The police are not our objective. They are the tool of the authorities which can stop us from reaching our objectives. Focusing on them can sometimes stop us from creating more beautiful and constructive moments of struggle.

MORE ON THE GILETS JAUNES

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