Sunday, March 08, 2009
Strikes... Parties... Riots... Impromptu brass band concerts
At the centre of Tours is the old town, a network of cobbled streets grouped around Place Plumereau, the heart of the medieval city. It's a magnet for tourists and party animals alike, with buildings dating as far back as the 15th century and dozens of bars, clubs and restaurants crammed into a pedestrianised area a few hundred yards across. Traditionally a student area due to its relatively low rents and the extremely high bar:resident ratio, it was saved from demolition in the 1970s and glammed up during the 80s and 90s to become the most beautiful part of a beautiful city. View Larger Map After over five weeks of strike at their university, students at Tours are coming out into the town to increase public awareness. A demonstration last Thursday ended in a face-off with local police dolled up in riot gear as protesters blocked the two main bridges into town. This didn't stop the Commission for the Community from organising a party in Place Plumereau for Saturday night, a sort of flash-mob/ protest that was probably intended as much to boost strikers' morale as to create publicity. We're all a bit down this week after quarrels with the President of the university and even some disagreement between members of the movement. Well, I actually had another party, so I just popped by the square on my way to the under-the-counter-alcohol candy shop. It was a beautiful sight. Around the edges of the square, tourists and towns-folk sipped their saturday night demis, pretending not to watch the middle where jolly students and hippies drank bottled beer and danced in a conga line. I waved at my friends, wished them a bonne soirée and toddled off to my friend's birthday. Coming back at 1am from Les Halles I would normally cross Place Plume, but from la Place du Grand Marché I could tell something was going on in the square. I cut down rue de la Rotisserie and found myself slap-bang in the action at the corner with rue du Change. Crammed into the tiny street, a couple of hundred young people were being advanced on by CRS (riot police). A friend told me the police had burst into Place Plume at around 10.30 while protesters and partiers were dancing round their bonfire, and had been gradually pushed south of the square. Here it is necessary to comment- anyone who actually wanted to stop a bonfire would send the fire engines. This was a move on the part of the police to stop free protest, not fires. What the police hadn't counted on was the fact that every young working person in the Tours agglomeration gathers in the bars on Saturday night to kick back. My British readership may not believe this, but there are young working people in Tours who resent violent police involvement in peaceful protest. Some of them even distrust their police force. So by the time I had got there the students had in fact dispersed into largish groups around the centre-ville, but their numbers had swelled from a couple of hundred to maybe a couple of thousand as young people spilled out of the rapidly closing bars to help their cause. What I first saw on the corner of rue du Change was the hard-core of a mixed group of youth, the ones who were taking the biggest risks to keep the riot police out of our part of town. I had barely been updated on this by my friend Etienne when flares roared up in front of the police lines, blanks appeared to be fired and he grabbed my arm, shouting 'Run!'. We ran back into Place Plume as the narrow road was filled with tear gas. My friend pulled my scarf tightly around my face but it didn't make much difference. The gas filled up everywhere for a good hundred yard radius- it must have affected a lot of onlookers and people on their way home. Despite the gas I stayed in rue du Change for a good half hour, taking photos and talking to people. The police were trying to advance back north towards Place Plume, but kids throwing bottles and periodically rushing them in a mass impeded their progress, so they contented themselved with generous doses of gas (lacrymogène, my wortd for the day) avery five minutes or so. They'd been stuck like that for several hours and were clearly awaiting reinforcements. When my camera ran out of battery I went home and changed out of my party gear into a hoody. I decided this time to approach the riots from rue de la Monnaie, coming up behind the police lines. A small crowd had gathered to watch on this side, presumably all people who thought they would be protected if they stayed behind the police. When I got out my camera, however, there were problems. An officer told me to move further back, so I did. However when he told me to stop taking pictures I refused. He told me he would break my camera- I said 'I doubt that.' There were clearly too many witnesses for him to try. Then he told me he would break my camera if I didn't delete all the pictures, and if not, arrest me. He was one of those thugs doing crowd control safely behind the actual riot police lines, a real thicko. I replied that if he wanted to delete the pictures on my camera he would have to arrest me first, and we could go down the station and discuss the matter. 'There's nothing to discuss. It's illegal to take pictures of a police officer carrying out his duty.' I suggested here, perhaps a little rashly, that as an employée of the state, if he was doing things at work that he didn't want recorded, he was probably not doing his job properly. Classic answer- 'I don't come and take photos of you doing your job.' 'Alors maybe you're in the wrong job, Monsieur.' He grabbed my camera. I held on fast. Then the crowd saved me- all the young men behind me got out their camera phones and started snapping in solidarity. This posed enough of a mental challenge to the copper that he losened his grip, and I judged the time right to slip away, not without taking a quick pic of him. Funnily enough that was the only picture of the night that wasn't completely blurry. As I wandered away from the police lines, several more vans drew up. The long-awaited reinforcements had arrived. I kept on round the corner to the Place du Monstre, on the western edge of the old town. And what a charming sight after the CRS! A group of boys were leaning out of a first-floor window with brass instruments- one had a tuba- playing jolly music to the crowds below. Crowds were dancing to a variation on the theme from Tetris, a great song and one of my favourites. I saw my friend Benjamin and he introduced me to his girlfriend. 'Enchantée,' I said, as though we were all having an apero together. It was 3.30 am. The dancing carried on in Place du Monstre, but the newly strengthened police had nearly finished pushing everyone out of the old town via the 8 or 9 roads radial to Place Plume. I saw the smoke pouring out of the nearest side road, rue du Grand Marché, and gauged it was time to go home to bed. Skirting the Place to get home via tiny, winding side-streets, I could see cops fighting kids, and smoke everywhere. When I came into my road, rue du Commerce, the main exit from Place Plume to the east, there was still a line of protesters to one side of me and a line of police to the other. I ignored the flying bottles and went off home to bed, but the noise carried on till much later. This morning rue du Commerce was scattered with broken glass and blood.