Tales of a city that no longer is.
Words by Anna MacMaster & photos by Anna MacMaster
By the time the week had passed, we’d found a way to laugh about it. For weeks it felt like that was all we did — forever at a different bar or else with all our boot-clad feet dangling over the murky canal with a bag of lukewarm Heineken and packs of cigarettes perilously near empty, bumming off our neighbors not so much out of fear of an empty wallet as that of missing the next joke. Surely, we were all Charlie, or at least liked to see ourselves as such. Sitting around a table on some terrace we gave near-constant lip service to the right to laugh at religion (though not atheism), at the media (mostly BFM TV), at all the red-faced politicians sweating through their suits. That was in January, after this generation of Parisians had seen their first cold-blooded slaughter on the sidewalk on television, point blanc. Even for a Bostonian it felt raw, somehow more personal than 9-11, than the 2013 marathon bombing, than anything I’d ever seen before, maybe because I thought when I made my run for it I’d escaped that sort of thing as well. But when my French friends took to the streets so many days afterwards, hundreds of thousands gathered around a still-pristine Place de la République in a demonstration against fear and the amalgamation it stood poised to create, I must admit that I stayed home, news tabs open on my laptop, afraid that someone might show up with a gun or a bomb or whatever they wanted and create a stampede in which everyone would be trampled to death. Of course, it didn’t happen like that; I watched online as even the most hypocritical of world leaders walked side by side and posters boasting “même pas peur,” not even scared, bobbed above so many thousands of tiny heads. I felt myself a caricature of the paranoid American.
I wasn’t there in November either, by some fluke having boarded a transatlantic flight two weeks earlier. One of the last times I’d been out had been to one of those bars, a quick walk from home. The boy I was seeing at the time had leaned way back in one of the rickety wooden chairs on the terrace and told me why he’d tattooed a grasshopper on his hand. “They can only jump forwards,” he told me. “Not back, not sideways. There was this period where they just kept jumping on me, a handful every day.” He shook his head and smirked a little, took a drag on his cigarette and exhaled smoke into the gathering autumn. “Apparently they’re telling you to go forward without fear.” Then he shrugged. “I like symbols,” he said, his eyes ahead of him, looking at nothing. I nodded. I liked symbols too. And even though he wasn’t there that night a month later, even if by some small miracle none of my friends were, in a handful of hours the concept of that fearless leap forward began to feel absurd.
Still, it wouldn’t be until March that anglophone papers would pick up on that catchy, lifted headline — “Paris is Burning.” The Loi Travail, or the Loi El Khomri, the increased precarity of a work contract, of retirement, of a humane workweek seemed to have upset an imagined equilibrium. My friends assured me that it was only like that on certain days. I came back. I knew quite acutely that I knew nothing of November and that I knew little of the silence that had followed it. The streets we had, on certain nights, rambled down in total disregard of oncoming traffic had been quiet when I’d returned briefly in December. I’d been shocked to find them mute, bare. At least now there would be noise.
When Tom told me to bring a helmet the morning of June 14, I failed to take him seriously. Everything seemed almost-normal in the weeks immediately following my return. I chalked my alarm up to clickbait. I had seen the photos, and even if I didn’t doubt the truth behind them (that certain police had aimed batons at certain heads, had launched gas grenades too close to polyester pants, that a journalist had lost an eye), I arrived without goggles or eyedrops, with nothing but a dirty tissue at the bottom of my bag. I didn’t know what tear gas smelled like yet and in my ignorance I told myself it couldn’t be all that bad. I made sure not to wear synthetic fabrics. I googled what to do in the event of a stampede and promptly forgot the answer. I stood in line at the entry checkpoint near Bastille and waited for an officer to check my bag before weaving through the gathering crowd, making my way to the front. As I approached, still a few hundred meters away, my nostrils started burning. The muffled base of the grenades was louder than the hiss I’d expected and the desire to leave seized me. With each distant impact the impulse to duck came faster than the belief that I was not in danger. The side streets along the Boulevard Montparnasse were blocked by shielded officers and metal blockades, and as I dodged closer and closer to where the sound was coming from and felt the sting grow in the back of my throat, I pulled the tissue, crumpled and grey, from the bottom of my bag. I pressed it against my mouth. It didn’t help, and for what felt like the umpteenth time that day I scolded myself for being such a hopeless idiot. And yet I needed to know how much of it was true — who it was the police were beating back, why, and with what force. I felt someone jostle me from behind in passing and apologized to thin air — “please, don’t worry about it,” came a gravelly baritone from behind an Anonymous mask, dressed in black and camo. I followed him, pausing only slightly to see a girl sitting on the curb in the midst of the throng, clutching the top of her head, blonde hair matted with blood as I felt a crunch beneath my left foot — glass from a broken bottle, friendly fire. It was the first time I realized that the helmet wasn’t just in anticipation of the state’s violence, but also the bad aim of so many masked amateurs. As the horde began to chant, “tout le monde déteste la police,” I wondered who we’d go to if the same girl had received the same injury at the hands of a stranger, only outside her neighborhood bar on a Saturday night. The “state of emergency, terrorist state” that followed was only slightly more tuneful. As a string of gendarmes streamed alongside us down the boulevard, and through the smoke and my blurred vision I heard the cold rupture of another bottle on the pavement being swallowed by the detonation of another tear-grenade, I turned back, looking for a way out. Stopping briefly to take a photograph of a bus stop sporting spiderweb cracks in its shatterproof glass, a woman stopped me. “You know it wasn’t the protesters who did that,” she said, “it was les casseurs.” It translates directly to the “breakers.” I wondered as I walked away if the breakers didn’t see themselves as the real protesters, the rest of us little more than herded animals.
If I understood that the loi travail was as problematic in its flagrant contradiction of the French conception of work-life balance as it was in the blind eye it turned to the countless multinationals shirking their tax obligations year after year, I failed to see the utility in what felt like provocation for provocation’s sake. Still, I found a helmet, goggles, a flowered scarf that would do the job as well as any black bandana and make it known, I hoped, that I was nothing more than a dogless observer of the fight. The next week another protest was scheduled. This time, the Parisian municipality tried to forbid it, before finally confiding it to the 700 meter stretch that lay between the Bastille and the banks of the Seine. Everyone marched in a circle.
Hours passed without incident — no projectiles or smoke, insults thrown from both sides without retaliation, bored journalists complaining amongst themselves. After a couple hours, the police began to reopen the roundabout to traffic. People sat down on the cobblestones, a handful of arrests were made, and the crowd decided they weren’t leaving. The police were told to force them, two lines of plexiglass shields and blue uniforms separated the crowd in two — one group pushed to the surrounding sidewalks, the other to the seemingly infinitesimal circle of asphalt surrounding the green-patina tower in the center. I found myself in the latter. We were packed there on the roundabout in what felt like a tin can of human nervousness. A woman next to me cried out to one of the shields, “what do you say we just have a barbecue? Eat some merguez, go to the pool?” It was among the most self-evident of jokes I’ve ever heard. I wondered what would happen if we really did. The officer laughed. “We don’t want to be here either,” she said. He looked away then, one eyebrow raised. The CRS officers were sweating through their thick uniforms. They were employees like the rest of us, hiding jealousy of unemployment cheques behind contempt for laziness. I noticed the placard on the monument — July 1830. And here we were, June 2016, all of us wet with perspiration, protesting for a cause upon which it appeared that no one fully agreed. In name, it was because of El Khomri and state overreach. But in practice, through the chants and the posters, the occasional smashed storefront, the anger revealed itself as something blurrier, more existential. Sick of an incompetent president, sick of threats and emergencies, sick of looking at the news, the nebulous war in which we’d found ourselves had heretofore lacked a concrete opponent. But in the moment the state first turned its legislation against the everyman and its weapons against high school students, we were given someone upon which to pin some kind of blame. After an hour, we were led group by group towards the metro, surrounded by uniforms.
Days later, I emerged from the subway at République to a line of CRS before me, surrounding the square. The monument, a woman with one arm raised, an olive branch in hand atop an ornate limestone pedestal, had changed since I’d last looked at her so many months ago. I thought of January, when on television she had been clean, untouched, the symbol of the indomitable nation. Now the ground below was littered — old candles, photographs, paper with illegible notes scribbled in great sadness, the pedestal stained with graffiti, moustaches painted on the muses. Kids were skateboarding, some riding their bikes, small groups of protesters sitting cross-legged on the ground in circles, a row of CRS vans idling outside the Labour Exchange. I strolled inside to find a couple hundred protesters having occupied the building, seated calmly in the main hall, listening to a woman at the microphone. I sat down with them and waited for the point of it all to be elucidated. Were we after a communist revolution? Wasn’t communism, in its way, just as tyrannical as any other form of government? And if we were after total anarchy, could I really trust my neighbor to protect me out of altruism, outside of the circle-jerk, out on the street at night? I raised my camera to take a photo and felt a tap on my shoulder. “Did you ask them if you could do that?” asked a well-coiffed middle aged woman. “No, should I?” “You aren’t allowed to take photographs here.”
I walked out into the foyer to find an acquaintance leaning against the wall, inspecting his cuticles. In a glance we understood the other’s boredom and we left together, eyes lingering on the armed police outside the entrance before sitting down together at a café across the street and ordering two beers. As the golden hour turned blue onto the limestone buildings we watched the square, lamented what had been done to the monument, traded stories about Paris and our fathers and university. He had been to every protest since they began in March and he was beginning to think about smashing a window or two as well. “The cops are pretty out of control,” he says. As the street-lamps buzzed alight we stared at three officers standing together on the corner, absent any concrete orders, certainly more bored than we were. As a boy no older than twenty walked towards them the officers’ eyes lit up. The boy raised his hands in cooperation as they patted him down, manhandled him, seized him by both arms and led him forcefully to the building across the street, behind a car. I opened my mouth, inhaled in preparation to speak before realizing that my friend had taken his camera and was already jogging down the road to where the police had taken the kid. It had become impossible to block our peripheral vision to the unfairness that previously lingered just around the corner. Authority had long presented itself this way, often uglier, in suburbs nearby. It was bleeding inwards now, and yet we’d only bothered to get really angry about it once we’d felt a hand on our wallets. If this was what it all looked like now, surely we could also blame our own nearsightedness.
All of it felt like so much theater — those scheduled protests and the roads they covered a pop-up stage for the law and the disorder to play out a shared and growing anxiety. Helmets were no longer allowed by mid-summer, nor goggles or lemon juice. I was supposed to pick a side, and yet the more I saw the less capable I felt of sympathizing on either end. If the last year had taught us to fear the faceless, it began to seem as if some would stop at nothing to create an enemy everyone could understand — either state proxies or the youth they bulldozed, either way so many men in costume. I saw in my images a desire to document the sense of gathering that is, in many ways, the heart of civil disobedience. Paris began to feel like an adopted home eight years ago, and most of the time it still does — days like those described haven’t become the norm. But it has the feel of dealing with that family member who’s spiraled the past few years, who you love deeply but wish would only just get her shit together. The protests stopped in July, police and dissidents alike at least able to agree that everyone needed a summer vacation, perhaps the most sacred aspect of the national concept of work. I was relieved until I was told that they would be back September 15, only well-rested this time. A year and a half ago I was afraid of lone wolves. I still am. I’m also wary now of skirmishes between men in blue uniforms and black sweatshirts, of boredom combined with anger, of our eagerness to march upon one another’s heads. I haven’t come back around to the possibility of the fearless leap forward. Instead I just try to sit still.