Field Notes Letter from Paris
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The French presidential elections brought what many were dreading, a standoff between what has long been called the “authoritarian liberalism” of Emmanuel Macron and the “avowed fascism” of Marine Le Pen. For a small month-long window before the elections people who don’t usually vote began to talk about voting for Jean Luc Mélenchon, whether matter-of-factly—“his program is correct,” said my favorite barman Kamel at the Mouton Blanc in Strasbourg St Denis as he served me a pint-sized spritz—or resignedly, “it’s the only chance we have against Le Pen because it’s not a given that people will vote for Macron against her.”
A couple of weeks before the elections tensions ran high against the Jadotistes—the kind of bourgeois-bohemians who might have voted for Mélenchon in the last election (the problem with such a leopard is he’s always changing his spots, his party, his discourse) who were now voting Jadot, an “ecological” candidate whose program was actually less green than Mélenchon’s. Bruno Latour himself had come out and supported Jadot publicly, along with a scattering of left-wing intellectuals who clearly refused to see that the only candidate who could get any kind of traction against the Le Pen—Macron black hole was Mélenchon, according to the polls.
In the rain in Belleville a few days before the first round I found some surprising green-haired steam punks distributing tracts for Jadot, telling me that even though he wouldn’t win it was “important to vote for what we believe in.” These are the words of a Green party of bureaucrats in its death throes; they want the racket to exist after the election, or they have to reimburse their campaign money. The week before the election I sat in a bar in the 12th Arrondissement with people who don’t usually vote, making paper airplanes and origami frogs and birds out of Mélenchon’s campaign leaflets, which used the 1968 slogan “another world is possible.” We read his program, which everyone found not so bad after all: freezing the prices of basic necessities and energy costs in the face of the gas and inflation crises, raising unemployment benefits, requisitioning empty houses and second homes for public housing, outlawing eviction, reforming the police, and reinstating retirement at sixty.
Perhaps Fabien Roussel, the Communist Party candidate, who seemed to have lost his mind and was framing his campaign solely on anti-ecological solutions on the basis that ecology is anti-working class, telling anyone who would listen that he would continue to eat meat and at all costs keep using nuclear power, ought to have stood down in the interests of a left coalition—he garnered only 2.28% which could have pushed Mélenchon into the second round. Viewed this way, we could consider Jadot and Roussel to reflect each other: both make a kind of identity politics out of suggesting that an ecological position, or a working-class culture are incompatible with the Left, Mélenchon’s program seemed to defend both working-class and environmental interests without suggesting that they are opposed. Jean-Luc came in at 22%, behind Macron in first place with 27.8%, and Marine Le Pen at 23.1%. Two candidates from the far and center right followed—Eric Zemmour with 7.1%, Pécresse, the Républicain, with 4.8%. One has to gain over 5% of votes for campaign money to be reimbursed: much to everyone’s amusement, Pécresse had invested 5 million euros of her own money in her dream.
How will the rest of the votes recompose into votes for Macron, Le Pen, or abstention on the 24th? It would seem to depend on how many voted Mélenchon as a blockade against both of the main candidates and therefore may abstain, or simply against Le Pen and therefore will vote Macron, how many believe in the protectionism of his program and are unbothered by the racism of Le Pen and will vote for her “national preference” “socialism.” How many voters will have really had enough of Macron and will give up, therefore allowing the far-right candidate to pass…
The conversations in Paris: “In any case, she has no chance of winning” (not true); “If she passes, she wouldn’t have a majority in the National Assembly and she’ll be less able to pass laws than Macron” (she wants to change the constitution for this reason); “At least there will be better street mobilizations” (at what cost, and then the afterthought); “the Constitution;” and then: “It isn’t a choice, between the aggressive neoliberalism of Macron and the fascism of Le Pen, Macron is just fascism by another name;” All this falls a little flat now that the “choice” between the two candidates is upon France once again. There are those who sacralize abstention, and those who sacralize the vote. There are those who say, grit your teeth, it’s not a “choice” but you can choose the enemy you want to fight with. There are those who point out that although it’s a bad choice, there must be a strong street movement.
Monday, April 11, about 400 students occupied a wing of l’Université de la Sorbonne following an antifascist general assembly called in response to the results of the first round of the elections. Elsewhere in Paris, a building of l’École Normale Supérieure (ENS, one of the grandes écoles—the French equivalent of the Ivy league or Oxbridge) was also occupied. Paris 8, the university in the northern suburb of St Denis, was blockaded to demand the regularization of students without documents (whether from Ukraine or from other countries), against student precarity, the exploitation of workers at the university, and the inaction of the administration in the face of sexual and sexist violence. Both the communiqué of the Sorbonne and of the ENS, explained “Our mobilization isn’t about advising people to vote or to abstain, but about bringing to light the hatred of, and the current obfuscation of the stakes by, the two programs (Le Pen/Macron). The absence of what we want, and the danger our rights are put in, our fear of the future and of racist, sexist, sexual, classist, and queerphobic violence, omnipresent in the presidential campaign and in the programs of both candidates, have obliged us to react.”
Many of the student communiqués outline the non-choice, but also emphasize that they don’t endorse either voting (for Macron), or abstaining. These students see the situation as so dire that it’s understandable that people would want to build a dam against Le Pen, and also that they have trouble doing so since so many of Macron’s policies have instituted harsh austerity and institutional racism.
Monday night, police surrounded the occupied Sorbonne and made it difficult for others to come and go freely. The occupation continued impressively throughout the week, however, further securing its place with general assemblies and public demonstrations in front of the building, and in the neighborhood, in support of the occupation. Students also sent out Subcommandante Marcos-esque video communiqués1 in which masked students explain their choice to protect their anonymity in view of the repressive strategies of the university administration. These students are very young, they have spent the last two years inside in springtime due to COVID measures which closed high schools and universities and moved classes online; for many it was their first experience of a student occupation, as a third-year philosophy student who had taken part explained to me.
On Thursday morning, students at Sciences Po, another grande école, blockaded the university in the interests of “visibilizing and affirming student demands, absent from the presidential campaign, and even more so from the second round.”2 They highlighted that neither candidate responded to their worries about social justice, the environment, feminism, disability, racism, antifascism, the precariousness of student life and income, discrimination against non-European students; they wanted to reinsert these worries into public discourse. Thirty or so” identitarian” (far right) militants kicked these blockaders out, wearing balaclavas and screaming, “We’re at home here.” According to a student witness, “the left-wing students began running.” The group “La Cocarde Étudiante,” alongside some members of Generation Zemmour and l’UNI (the nationalist student union, created in 1968 against the uprising, to reinstate order in the universities) dismantled the barricade aggressively, tweeting “In the face of the inaction of the authorities we took things into our own hands. Everyone ran off. They should accept the verdict of the ballot box: their defeat!”.
A 6pm demonstration of several hundred people demanding the regularization of students without French nationality at the Panthéon tried to join the occupiers at the Sorbonne, just a few streets away. The police tear-gassed the place and there were a few fights, arrests, and injured. Police used the opportunity to evict the occupation, at the request of the university rectorate, and some of the occupiers did leave. The choice of the rectorate to close the university ahead of the holidays was understood as a choice to stop students from having spaces to organize in and to repress their mobilization against the elections. About fifty people remained inside, the police having conditioned their leaving with an identity check.
By 11 Thursday night, there was little trace of the occupation except for the police presence, which cordoned off rue St Jacques and rue Victor Cousin from the sparse presence of tourists, businessmen, and whoever the hell else would go drink in the Latin Quarter. Four young women were arguing with police on the Place de la Sorbonne, and a sadly draped banner clung to the bars on a high-up window. The splendid square was desolate and even the fountains were switched off. The police were obviously finding the experience of being harangued by four beautiful young zoomers perversely pleasurable. Unmanned police barricades cordoned off the square from the street. Behind these, heavily equipped riot police were dismantling a barricade made of chairs on rue Victor Cousin. Imagine that you wanted to be a cop for the fantasy of fighting crime, rescuing young women from peril, being a brutal and violent hero, and your job is to tidy up some school chairs? In violent retaliation against such humiliation, the cops sat down on the chairs and started taking selfies.
Around the back of the Sorbonne, on rue Toullier, a crowd of sweet- seeming zoomers remained until about midnight, waiting for their friends to leave the occupation, which was by now entirely over. “Excuse me,” a very responsible-seeming young person wearing a surgical mask asked us. “Are any of the legal guardians of those still inside still here?” Some of the people inside were, as the philosophy student I talked to had confirmed, very young—16 and 17. They all wore surgical masks. Under the pressure of their presence, the few left inside were able to leave without being arrested or having their identities checked. Eventually they all came out, walked three meters down to the end of this small ruelle chanting, “On est là ! Même si Macron le veut pas, nous on est là ! Pour l’honneur des travailleurs et pour un monde meilleur, même si Macron le veut pas, on est là” (“We’re here! Even if Macron doesn’t like it, we are here!”). A fringe group tried “Grève, blocage, manif sauvage!” (“Strike, blockade, illegal demo!”) but it didn’t really catch on. The liberated students seemed tired and happy to see their friends, they had very little air of defeat about them.
A very bourgeois looking young man with a shiny face and lips stained with red wine like a vampire came up and asked me if I’m a demonstrator. I said, No. “But there’s a demonstration,” he presses. I say, Yes, the Sorbonne was occupied and it looks like everyone will go home. “But you were in the demonstration.” Sadly, No—it’s the truth—besides there’s an undertone to his question that I don’t like. “Who will you vote for?” he asks aggressively, still trying to categorize me somewhere amongst the answers he’s already made up for himself. He has a less aggressive friend with him. A pair of drunk 19-year-olds. “I don’t know if you’ve caught on to my accent,” I say, “but I can’t vote.”
He says, “Yeah, you seem like you’re from Eastern Europe.” I don’t know what he means by this; it’s something that’s always been coded, and is currently coded differently. So I say, still using the formal vous, with a big smile but irritated by his mauvaise foi, “You know what, you can go fuck yourself.” I must have hurt his national pride somewhere deep, for he spit out: “This country doesn’t want you.” Perhaps he’s just a 19-year-old, perhaps he’s a Macronist, or perhaps he’s a budding far-right militant—after all, the 5th Arrondissement is their stomping ground. A few weeks ago Loik le Priol, former leader of the Groupe Union Defense, hunted down and shot the Argentinian rugby player Martin Aramburu dead in front of his hotel, after a bar fight which began with the rugby player intervening when Loik and his friends verbally abused a non-French homeless person asking for money in a bar. There are constant spats over territory between Paris Antifa and groups of fascists who’ve been trying to claim the neighborhood since ’68. So, you know, you have to be wary. His friend persuades the guy bothering me to leave and he, still not having understood that none of us foreigners can vote, threatens, “You’ll choose, you’ll choose, on election day you’ll choose between Le Pen.” “It’s not a choice!” screams a young student, exhausted.
There was a demonstration against the extreme right on Saturday the 16th, starting at Nation, in which various positions—syndical and autonomous, for abstention and for voting for a strategic blockade against Le Pen—were all represented. The demonstration was huge, calm, boring, lined with police—a kind of moving kettle. As it reached its end at République, not much happened either. The spirit of anti-fascism was generalized beyond Antifa—everyone was chanting siamo tutti antifascist,i for example—to the extent that the Antifa themselves were invisible. At the demonstration ran confusingly into a Pakistani pro-Imran Khan rally. The statue of La République was adorned in blue and yellow (for Ukraine) several weeks ago in a semi-environmentalist, semi anti-war protest. Some determined young black bloc people tried to amass bottles from recycling bins and were reproached by some moderate seeming demonstrators. Some people lit a fire. The absence of much of the habitual spectacular property damage made for a loud silence. It is the first spring that we’ve been outside without sworn declarations or curfews that confiscate the night, and I get the feeling that the normal spring movement in Paris is only just waking up.
Despite the administrative closure of the Sorbonne, the students had called for other universities and high schools to “mobilize,” starting from Tuesday 19. Lycées (high schools) Louis le Grand, Fenelon, Lamartine, Jean Jaurès, Henri IV, Monet, and Victor Hugo were all blockaded. On the way to the library I happened upon Lycée Lamartine which was joyfully blocked by a hundred or so high-school students, who had arranged themselves in a stunning tableau on top of bins that had been repurposed to block the doors of the school. They had signs reflecting the concerns of the last few years and about the election: “Sorbonne everywhere,” “Paris Antifa,” “Black lives matter,” along with banners articulating the problems raised for young people by both electoral programs. They were joining in on all kinds of rhythmic chants against Macron and Le Pen, but especially Le Pen. At one point they were yelling the words to Bérurier noir’s iconic 1985 punk song “Porcherie”: “La Jeunesse Emmerde Le Front National.”3 They were joyful and a beautiful presence, some masked, some with the retro goth makeup characteristic of zoomers and doomers. On the other side of the road from the students explicitly holding the fort, another fifty or so students stood looking on shyly yet proudly. Cars honked for them frequently, and several wandering high-schoolers did a good job of charming cars and trucks into honking as well: “Klaxonne si’l te plaît!”
I try to lock up my bike but concerned young girls in hijabs tell me that my bike will be in danger despite how peaceful the protest is. A young man comes up to me: “Madame, would you like to lend me your bicycle so I can go buy fumigènes (flares).” I hesitate for two seconds, but he and his entourage have a mini assembly, and decide they should do this using Lime scooters since they need to take cash out first. I ask another boy with braces on his lower teeth how long he’s been up. “Since 6:30. I went and distributed leaflets at two lycées, and then I came here.” How did they organize this? “On Instagram, a call from the Sorbonne went out on Instagram so we decided to blockade.” Was he, or others, in the Sorbonne occupation too? Not him, but he moves off when I tell him I’m writing an article. I ask another with a backpack how long he’s been here. “Since 10am. I had no idea it was happening, no one told me. It’s cool, though.” Another tells me it’s the first time he’s blockaded his high school, he’s in seconde, he was too young to participate in blockades the last time. There are no police, just the school security guard or janitor standing idly by. A sympathetic teacher with long hair and a hoodie congratulates them on their efforts. A man who looks like a gilet jaune motorcyclist, wearing a RIC (Citizens' Initiative Referendum, promoted by Mélenchon’s party) button, looks on sentimentally. It’s difficult to get hold of students to ask them more about it, and I don’t want to kill their vibe, so cool and complete. I’m less involved than the pair of Trotskyists with red scarves who have come to turn this tableau into permanent revolution.
A cross-university general assembly was planned that morning at University Paris 8. The university followed the example of the Sorbonne rectorate to stop it from happening, and closed the university. This was also the case at University Paris 4 at Clignancourt. Students called for a last-minute assembly at University Paris 7 Grand Moulins at midday and the CROUS (the body which takes care of student welfare, benefits, accommodation, and things like food stamps) was occupied by 200 students. Whereas administrative closures following blockades have in previously been seen as a victory of sorts, the shutdown of the post-COVID university infrastructure means that exams will nonetheless be held online.
On Wednesday April 20, students barricaded the Condorcet campus in the suburb of Aubervilliers, and held general assemblies or hung out on the roof. The police did not come to break up the occupation and it continued into the weekend. Although a security guard patrolled the front of the campus, he also opened the gate for visitors so that they would only have to climb one of the barricades, and not the fence. That night was the presidential debate.
It’s very long—two and a half hours—and timers in front of the candidates show how long they’ve spoken. Marine Le Pen, too afraid to use the words gilets jaunes since she’d publicly opposed them in 2018, nonetheless gestured at them: “Monsieur Macron is afraid of the People.” She positioned herself as the “People’s” candidate, bringing out well-rehearsed statistics about buying power and inflation and pensions. Macron failed throughout the debate to point out how extreme is the side of the spectrum she occupies. It was like watching two technicians pick over the bureaucratic details of laws and policies. There were very few of the “grand ideas, “takings of positions, talk about literature and philosophy, or romanticisms that usually characterize the French presidential debate.
Marine Le Pen had had good media training; she smiled a lot and kept to her allotted time slot. Macron was aggressive and cut her off. Were you an alien who didn’t understand anything of what was going on you’d mainly notice that he’s a very condescending person, you might want to throw your drink at him. Someone on Twitter called him a “mansplainer.” A sticky moment came over the war in Ukraine and Le Pen’s relationship with Putin.
Towards the end they spoke about immigration and Islam, where Marine Le Pen really revealed her true racism, and Macron presented himself as the most tolerant person in the world, obscuring the racist laws his government has passed. “It’s just a scarf,” he said of the hijab; “we aren’t going to send police officers after people for a scarf.” “You did for masks,” Marine Le Pen quipped, referring to the COVID measures. Macron managed to incorporate this new burst of tolerance into a republican discourse: “It’s unconstitutional to deny people access to public space,” and then tilted toward an extreme right-wing, “clash of civilizations” idea of Muslims as a violent underclass: “If you went into the projects and took peoples’ scarves off, it would be a civil war.”
70% of France's Muslims voted Mélenchon in the first tour so Macron would have been more than invested in publicly defending the image of himself as a tolerant centrist at this point in time. Under his rule Darmanin passed the Islamophobic separatism law and there has been all kinds of public hysteria about the headscarf, so this seemed disingenuous. That said, the move he made in his speech echoes the strategy of the law: it splits the community, creating an inner enemy out of “Islamists” as a way of assimilating, and gaining popularity in, the Muslim community. He’s nonetheless a safer president for foreigners and Muslims. Almost foaming at the mouth as Macron told her she was in contradiction with what it means to be French, wide-eyed, Le Pen lost the cool she’d unnervingly managed to maintain throughout. At the end Macron actually thanked her, and said something about them not being so different, and something vague about the children being the future.
On election night, the polling stations close at 8pm, but the Belgian radio station RBTF, not bound by French law, releases exit polls and fairly accurate projected results long before, to the horror of French journalists and ministers, who say that this is undemocratic. It’s true that voters who didn’t want to vote for Macron might have depended on this information in deciding on whether to vote or not at all. By 5pm, it seemed he had won. He had a strong majority: 58.5%. The abstention rate, however, hasn’t been so high since the elections after 1968. Marine Le Pen did a lot better in the Outre-Mer, which might be informed by the politics of the health pass: in Martinique (60.87%), Guadeloupe (69.60%) and Guyane (60.70%). The restrictions in the Outre-Mer were harsher, and there have been huge uprisings and general strikes, particularly in Guadeloupe, protests which amplified and were amplified by struggles against the (post-) colonial form of governance employed by metropolitan France, and by struggles against the use of poisonous pesticides such as Chlordécone in agriculture (in Martinique and Guadeloupe).
Demonstrations had been called in many cities, irrespective of the result. In Paris there were three: at the Panthéon, Chatêlet and République. The election fell on a holiday, Parisians were out of the city, and it felt like a non-event. La place de la République was deserted at 8pm. That’s to say, there were no protesters, just some drunk people yelling that they were from Cameroon and liked Macron, and hapless persons from Le Quotidien, wandering around and trying to find something to film. A man with a bicycle came up to us as we sat by the statue of the Republic trying to work out what to do next and said, “So he’s won. It was all planned from the beginning, do you find it normal?” I ask if he means the exit polls, but no, he means the political blackmail people have been subjected to, about having to vote for Macron against Le Pen. He means the exceptional power that the president has in the constitutional structure of the 5th Republic, which Mélenchon had pledged to change. “What do they talk about in the debate? Muslims, immigrants, do you find that normal?” I say, no. I don’t really know what his point is, he’s preaching to the converted, and anyway I can’t vote. “You’re welcome here in France young lady,” he says with great conviction.
We move to Chatêlet, where there are the materials for a riot—that is, enough people and police amidst the shopping crowd that it looks like one—but it never quite materializes. The demonstrators are being chased in all directions by hordes of BRAV (Mad-max-esque police mounted double on motorbikes, one to chase you and one to hit you), and shiny new metallic grey police trucks (a present to the force?) which swirl around the Boulevard Sebastopol-Les Halles axis, as confused but more violent than the demonstrators. A crowd manages to gather on the boulevard Sebastopol, about 500 people, very young, yelling “A-Anti-Anti-capitaliste”, “Ni Macron ni Macron ni Macron.” Seemingly bourgeois Parisians from their windows even joined in chanting “Siamo tutti antifascisti.” Has the demonstration been forbidden? None of us know, in any case it feels impossible and dangerous to demonstrate, because of the increasingly militarized and belligerent character of the police under Macron. The demonstration runs without knowing why it’s running, cuts down side streets, and tries to make its way to République.
Initially there are violent charges and the BRAV circle the place. Everyone assumes their roles and places. The police, after these initial charges stay back and are unprovocative. The demonstration assembles slowly over several hours, a few hundred people chanting around the statue. I don’t recognize anyone from other demonstrations I’ve been to. From what I can make out, there is a presence of Paris Antifa Banlieue, groups of gilets jaunes, young students, lycéens, some people (Trotskyists?) who have been singing the Internationale for several hours (they were singing it on Sebastopol as well), but there aren’t that many people. It feels rather despairing and confused; people certainly know why they are there, but there are no witnesses to their political understanding and conviction. At one point the demonstration makes a valiant attempt to break out, wild demo, to go somewhere as crowds often did from the same starting point years ago during Nuit Debout, but is pushed back by a violent police charge. Absolutely nothing feels possible.
Whispers in the crowd tell us it might want to go to the Champ de Mars, to the Eiffel tower where Macron is already celebrating. The last time he celebrated, a friend points out, it was at the Louvre, right in the center of Paris, and now he’s acknowledged his “distance” from the “People” (or the paintings, or the patrimony, or the public character of the museum) and is way off in the more bourgeois reaches of the city. That evening a friend went through the Marais, and the people on the térrasses popped open champagne when the results came in, in complacent victory. The police semi-kettled the place and reinforced their ranks, their aim being a minimal amount of conflict, to get the largest number of people to go home through the still open Metro out of sheer boredom. The cops themselves are bored;they mock a few Italians for their accents as they try to leave, probably needled because their candidate didn’t win. And as it gets later they begin to throw gas and grenades as the crowd gets smaller. Everyone eventually does go home.
- Blocage en cours de notre université pour visibiliser et affirmer les revendications étudiantes absentes de la campagne présidentielle, et encore plus du second tour.
- This song was written in response to the 1984 elections in which the FN had for the first time won more than 10%—now they have 40%!