Do you speak English? a desperate, youngish man asked the bulky police officer looming over me, “We are just tourists.” He and his partner were lost, as they probably should have been since touring in a France that is meant to be in lockdown seems a ridiculous thing to do, but then everything at that moment was completely ridiculous.
Here we were in a street that circles l’Etoile, the vast roundabout in Paris that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. It was Saturday evening, the sun was beginning to turn the monument a slight pink behind the officer, and the demonstration against President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to stop photographs of police violence was coming to an end.
The officer appeared to be the boss of a mobile motorcycle patrol of some twenty bikes, with a passenger officer on each vehicle, that had a few moments before roared passed me up the Avenue Foche toward l’Etoile looking for some possible act they could do in support of “l’ordre publique”. This BRAV-M is the brainchild of Didier Lallement, the sour-toned Prefect of Police for greater Paris whose role in Macron’s drive to “defend Republican values” has been to make life more painful for those wishing to protest against the President’s favourite policies.
The idea is that they can nip to any outbreak of trouble and stifle it at birth. The problem is that they usually make the situation worse as by “trouble” is meant the presence of people who, for reasons of the natural plurality of ideas in a democratic society, just happen to have another view on life than the guy in the Elysée.
This time, they found themselves deployed against a group of rather confused, mostly evidently extremely mature people who had just left a demonstration called in the name of virtually every media worker organisation one can think of, along with a brace of civil liberties movements, left wing political parties and youth movements. We had been there to support the idea that the public have a right to see what police officers are up to.
Human Rights Square
Getting into the rally was not straightforward.
On any tourist trip to Paris one is usually taken to the place du Trocadero, a wide roundabout with some grass in the middle that, on its south side, has a decorative sweep of classical-style museums built in the 1930s. These are split in two by a wide, square sort of platform where you can stand taking selfies with the Eiffel Tower in the background on the far side of the Seine. Since 1985 it has been officially called Le parvis de droits de l’homme, Human Rights Square.
After filtering through the police cordon into the place du Trocadero, which took a quarter of an hour in a queue, I thought to see whether a powerfully-worded banner held up on the parvis might make a good photo, with the tower in the background of course. No such luck. It was sealed off by a high, impenetrable, police barrier. The best one could do was to try a shot through a steel mesh of some riot police from the Compaignies Républicaines de Sécurités profiled before Paris’ Iron Lady.
They were standing where Adolf Hitler famously had himself filmed in June 1940. But, underneath the stone slabs on which the Nazi leader strutted, are the halls where the fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly was held, a session that on 10 December 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A plaque now tells us, in the words of the French Revolution’s original Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, not the UN one, that “men are born free and equal in rights”.
One cannot say it feels as if that is the case when closed in by police barriers behind which lie in wait armoured water cannon, and scores of riot police with rifles, grenade launchers, shields and truncheons. All but two ways out were completely shut off, and those two happened to be in the opposite direction to the most obvious metro station to go to.
Which was why the tourist and I had ended up talking to the police officer from a unit of the BRAV-M. It stands for Brigades de répression de l’action violente motorisées by the way. He had cameras, radios, plastic truncheon (a vicious thing if you ever catch a blow from one), service pistol, taser, anything in fact you might think useful when accosting stray demonstrators, even if none of them are carrying anything more dangerous than the occasional hand bag, all, at that particular instant, much smaller than any in the possession of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.
Looking at this preposterously over-dressed officer I could not help repeating in my head one of the good Lady’s lines: “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it has handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.” One of the most dangerous excesses being the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the principles of which we were there to uphold against Macron’s desire to stop people have a sneak view of evidence of police violence.
There were two things missing, as it happened. For a start, he did not have a clue as to what to do with us. We had been an accidental collection. The squad had rounded a corner from l’Etoile and found themselves at a red traffic light. We just happened to be there. I had been walking, completely lost, in one direction, the others were making their way more logically from the rally in the opposite sense.
When it went green, there was a roar of motors that would have pleased a Texan Harley club, they swung round to our side of the road and ringed us in. We could hear his conversations over the radio with his controller. His colleagues gave us different explanations as to why they had surrounded us while cars, bikes and what not, even other pedestrians, remained on the move all around. One suggested they were going to accompany us to the nearest metro station “to make sure you do not try to resume the demonstration somewhere else”.
The whole thing was superficially very decent, almost apologetic on both sides. As it should have been, for there is no reason why political protest should become violent, so long as those in authority let it be. It was, however, patently obvious with whom power resided – with the forces de l’ordre and not with the citizenry.
“It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” That’s a phrase from the preamble to the Universal Declaration. It was there for the 70th anniversary of the signing on giant display panels in the forecourt of the Gare de Lyon just beside our flat. Those panels were gone by the time we could hear the crump of tear gas grenade and flashball launchers as the gilets jaunes protests took off. There are now some misty mountain scenes and oddball portraits on show for a quick glance by those trundling their suitcases to catch a TGV to the south.
The “rule of law” is not the same thing as the rule of menace. How many of us in France have not seen the image that Priscillia Ludosky tweeted out on November 17? It was the first day of the global security law debate in the French parliament, but also the second anniversary for the gilets jaunes movement. Her petition in the summer of 2018 was a key mobiliser for the movement that shook Macron’s regime to its core. Backed by the Human Rights League, she has an important court case on the go against Didier Lallement over his violent kettling of a gilets jaunes rally in Paris – a kettling that he agreed in real time with the then Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and Macron himself.