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Since a new wave of demonstrations and strikes is scheduled for tomorrow, I thought it might be helpful for potential visitors to Paris, for tourists there now and others to hear about what really happened during last week’s March 28th protests.
I was already in Paris Tuesday and despite the fact that some British Tabloids had headlines that warned: “Don’t go to Paris” and despite the warnings of the U.S. Embassy, I decided to walk over to the demonstrations for a first-hand look. I am not advising anyone else to try this, but I’ve been to Paris many times and I have been to even more demonstrations in the U.S., so I figured I could handle the situation.
In retrospect, my little account may have some value because it definitely contradicts some of the sensationalism of the media reporting during and after the fact. For example, Corinne Maier, in an OP-ED piece in Friday’s New York Times reported: “In Paris the atmosphere has been morose for weeks…on Tuesday, when a million people marched, life seemed at a standstill-no newspapers, no trains…”
I started my little trek Tuesday by walking from Montparnasse toward the expected receiving ends of the march, Bastille and Gare Austerlitz. From a protester behavior standpoint, everything was calm and all services were normal, with the exception of police-barricaded streets near La Sorbonne on La Rue St. Jacques. But even at the barricades, there was no hassle, with police very quietly, but very firmly, checking to see if individuals had business accessing that part of the Sorbonne neighborhood, then letting the legitimate ones through. And there was no gloom, anywhere; just some quiet concerns from French merchants about the effect this might all have on tourism as well as a little embarrassment that this was all happening in front of a visitor.
The only real drama was provided by the police who arrived at Austerlitz in waves of huge blue buses with lights flashing and sirens blaring madly. Some stayed at the station, others disappeared into hidden locations, others headed further up the parade route and many simply stood out on the streets in the area around Austerlitz. These were both local gendarmes and national police and every cop I saw was outfitted in full riot gear (Protective vests, shoulder pads, shin guards, weapons) with protective head and face gear close by. I think the police tactic was to send a screaming message to would-be provocateurs; “no violence and don’t mess with us”.
Yet, aside from the noise made by the sirens and the visual statement made by the riot gear, the police were calm and quiet and even politely helped various tourists who wandered up to them to ask for directions or to inquire about what was going on. I also guess there is not much of a search and seizure law in Paris as we witnessed a few random stops of young people throughout our stay in Paris, including hands-against-the-wall frisking. None of these searches yielded anything and the kids were let go, but again this was done calmly and with something that bordered on courtesy. This was all in sharp contrast to the Boston Police in the 1970s who routed our little anti-Spiro Agnew demonstration before it ever really got started. Those Boston cops were screaming and red-faced, wielding night sticks and about trampling us with their huge police horses. Of course, we accepted and dodged the brutal Boston tactics, but would never have tolerated random search and seizure, no matter how professionally done; another odd little cultural difference in the world of demonstrations between the U.S. and France.
I walked to the Place d’Italie, the collecting point for the rally and March and there the demonstrators gathered hours before the projected march time of 1:30. There were plenty of police and protestors, but the mood on the part of the demonstrators was festive, with sausages on the grill, rock music playing, chanting, waving of signs, and beer for anyone that wanted any. I stayed around until after the marching began and walked down the avenue. And again, contrary to some reports, life was not at a stand-still. The cafes were all in business, many shops were still open and, yes, the trains were still running regularly, though the plan was to slow up transit after 2:30.
Since it was beginning to rain, I took a very crowded Metro train back to Montparnasse. Most of the inner city subway platforms were packed with protestors, though again all of this was high spirited and not at all menacing. As you moved away from the hotbed areas of center city, there was a complete calmness and a sense of business going on as usual, except for the sounds of those sirens. And these quiet areas away from the center city were not at all far from the action. (Montparnasse, for example, is only a fifteen minute walk to the Sorbonne).
I returned to the action in the early evening and nothing really had changed. There were high spirits and quiet, battle-ready police, but again the life of Paris just went on. There were some minor skirmishes at Republique later in the night, according to CNN News, but nothing apparently approaching the violence of the suburban riots during the winter.
So, based on this experience, should you put off that trip to Paris?
I would never fully recommend anything either way, because anything can happen in a volatile, even if somewhat playful situation. Speaking strictly for me, I not only would come back, but I plan to. However, I’ll make sure I don’t arrive or leave on the day of the protests because the air traffic controllers were in sympathy with the students and they closed down the airports. And tomorrow is another day of protests, so we shall see what happens next.
Meanwhile, my vacation is over and I’m back in Philadelphia enduring rude jokes about the French from my bar buddies. But I’ll know enough now not to take the reporting at face-value. I’ll stick to Karen Fawcett for my information. At least she’ll look around and report what she sees.