Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why I Love France

Oh France, you gave your language to my children, your lovers and your mushrooms to my wife. You sang my songs. You delivered my uncle and my auntie to the Nazis. I met the leather chests of the police in Place de la Bastille. I took money from the Communists. I gave my middle age to the milky towns of the Luberon. I ran from farm dogs on a road outside of Rousillon. My hand trembles in the land of France. I come to you with a soiled philosophy of holiness, and you bade me sit down for an interview. Oh France, where I was taken so seriously, I had to reconsider my position. Oh France, every little Messiah thanks you for his loneliness. I want to be somewhere else, but I am always in France. Be strong, be nuclear, my France. Flirt with every side, and talk, talk, never stop talking about how to live without G-d. Leonard Cohen- from Book of Longing

Friday, March 27, 2009

Equal Opportunities

Gordon Brown and the Queen have been chatting about making her job more 'equal opportunities'... getting rid of the bias against women and Catholics. The Prime Minister said 'In the 21st Century people do expect discrimination to be removed.' What the fuck? It's not like they're ever gonna clean that job up enough so that it's the best applicant who gets it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Le Fabuleux Destin De Frances Grahl

My university buildings are still bloqué so I have been able to devote all my time this week to demonstrating and pretending to be Amélie Poulain, two of my favourite things to do in France. I've never really felt myself to be a particularly useful member of society -an ornament, at best- but still there is something very particular about not really having any demands on my time at all. After 7 weeks of strike, I'm finding it difficult to even bother to go into school at all (although to be fair that's a problem I've had for the last ten years.) I pop in for the general assemblies, and usually bump into friends. The great thing about an erasmus year is that when you end up in a café in Place Plumereau drinking café creme and discussing Gloria Gaynor, you are still working on your French. I did this (with some variation of classic ballads analysed) almost every day this week. The trees are in blossom and everyone's wearing T-shirts and shades. I should finish reading Les Miserables, but this is really what I came to France for... Cycling across the Cher, eating raspberries by the lake, playing Jungle Speed, a game that still needs to catch on in England, over several bottles of wine in my loft... 25,000 people marched on Thursday in Tours and around 3 million in France. French demonstrations can be awfully fun- here the union of Artists of Touraine came out, wearing bowler hats, playing trumpets, and dragging dozens of massive sheets of painted corrugated metal, with which they built a sort of Berlin Wall around the Hotel de Ville. Tours musicology students, who have blocked their own faculty building for the past couple of weeks, sent a brass band, and the big trade unions competed as to who had the best music on their van/float (SUD won). In one of the speeches, someone said 'We're sending Guadeloupe our support, and they've sent us their weather,' which was true, it was blazing sunshine in a clear blue sky. Strike in France can also be horrible. The march in Paris on Thursday ended with tear gas and flash-balls, not really for any particular reason. In my experience, that kind of police provocation is usually to give the demonstrators a bad name, but if 5% of the population was already in the street I really can't see a point. A few weeks ago I went to Paris to march with my university in a massive university demonstration (50,000 people) and the police had just blocked off the route of the march completely, with amoured vans in a double row across Les Invalides, stopping the march from getting to its planned destination of the Assemblée Nationale. I don't think that kind of order comes from the police. It doesn't make that much difference to them, except that obviously a lot of people were angered, so the fun began for the CRS around 4.30 instead of 7.30. I tend to assume that the decision to break up a massive popular protest comes from the same guy who said 'Désormais, quand il y a une grève, plus personne ne s'en aperçoit'. Also this week I went on a much smaller march for a little girl called Nora, an Algerian baby adopted a year ago by a French couple. Her parents are fighting the baby's deportation, which would certainly lead to her return to an orphanage in Algeria, not, one assumes, the most wonderful of places to grow up. Her father has been on hunger strike for several weeks, leading to his arrest last week (I think for setting fire to his own car but I'm not sure). Poor kid is 16 months old! There's been a spate of deportations recently, many of people who have lived here for years, have jobs, are reasonably successful, pay their taxes and contribute to French society. Moral? Credit Crunch classic. 'Doesn't matter if you're integrated, when push comes to shove we're gonna screw you over as much as we like to show 'real' French people [i.e. voters] that we care. Even if you haven't yet learnt to walk.' These cases are examples to other immigrants, reminders of their second-class not-even-citizen status. I'm afraid the recession is gonna foster a lot more racial discrimination before it's over... In other news, I've finally been proved right- not hanging out with your friends enough does cause cancer. Louis has made a friend, a big ginger and white tom from the next door flat who likes to invite himself in over the rooftops. I'm trying to decide what to do over the summer- could be my last long summer holidays before I have to face the Real World. Until then I shall continue making believe I am a character in a French romantic comedy. Feels right.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Attack by the Awful A's

La Nouvelle République (my local paper) featured six articles today voicing its fears about the 'extreme left' in Tours. 'Antis, Anarchists, Activists... they're taking over the streets.' Interesting alliterative grouping there. (Antis, Anarchists, Activists- what will YOU choose?) One gets the feeling that the rather bourgeois, comfortable department of Indre-et-Loire was trying to ignore various groups of disaffected youth and has been called to attention- literally while enjoying a coffee en terrace in Place Plume. (Since I've been in this town I've noticed a rift between wealthy and not-so-wealthy that has none of the disparity of a city like London. On Saturdays, middle-aged women in fur coats do their shopping at the Galleries Lafayette whilst appearing completely oblivious to young people begging and bumming fags. I had long assumed there were a lot of squats in Tours. It seems that suddenly they are a threat to our comfortable, middle-class town life.) Tolerated while all they do is beg, all of a sudden they are dangerous. In a country with such a high youth unemployment rate, isn't it fairly natural that some people choose to 'opt out' as much as they possibly can? Even where insecure housing and begging for a living is a choice? Well, everyone's been rushing to put in their two-centimes-worth about Saturday's events. The departmental Prefet made a speech in which he deplored the fact that 'Voyous and SDF' (hooligans and homeless people) were encouraged to join in what 'may have' started out as a genuine party. Since a lot of homeless people tend to beg on the corner of the square where the police started gassing people up, I'm not fully convinced they are guilty for this involvement. As for hooligans, one assumes they were paying customers in the bars until the police forced the bars to close early. In a lot of interviews with bar managers, all that most of them seem to be upset about is the early closure and consequential financial loss, which came after police intervention and not as a direct result of the party. The police, on the other hand, are trying to get to the 'instigators' of the party. A chap who created a facebook group after the event, 'If you, too, felt like you were in Baghdad on Saturday 7th March in Tours!' has been asked to cooperate with the local police in moderating his group so no one can organise a repetition. Even more cooperative are Facebook themselves, who are helpfully delving into archived records of the original facebook event to give the police names and details of the organisers. Thinking back, a couple of things strike me. One- the police have been pretty well-behaved since the beginning of the university strikes here, but already last Thursday at our march they were out in riot gear for the first time this year. I think they may have judged the time was right to cut down on the Mr Nice Guy stuff... you know what the police can be like- 'Yeah, we've been really tolerant for ages. Now we can do what we like, right? We don't need an excuse!'. Except that Saturday furnished them with the excuse. Two- Within the legitimate strike movement at the University, people have been sensible enough not to enter into debate about Saturday. However, given that a lot of the ridiculously overblown reactions are aimed not at us, the students, but at a different group altogether -hooligans and homeless people- (I think there's some racism involved as well, as poor people in Tours are decidedly more ethnically-mixed than students here) maybe we should think about a bit more solidarity here. After London, this town can be annoyingly petty-bourgeois, complacent and bigoted. And although if I were ever to encourage rebellion I probably would not do it on this blog, it does occur to me sometimes that it would not be that difficult to bring Tours to its knees. (More on actual university strikes soon, I thought I wouldn't mix the two issues.)

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.