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Dispatches from France Four: Nantes Manifestación 6/2/16 Postscript, A Night at the Opera

nantesopera3
El Errante

“When the National Assembly becomes a bourgeois theater, all the bourgeois theaters should be turned into national assemblies.”
Graffiti, Paris May 1968 (above the entrance of the occupied Odéon Theater)

During the impromptu manif, referenced in the previous dispatch, several people moved through the crowd handing out leaflets. I took one, as did most of the folks I was with. They said that should the crowd be dispersed — as happened shortly thereafter — that folks will regroup at 6pm at the same assembly spot that the unions had used earlier in the day. It also indicated that food would be served and that more actions might happen. The afternoon was spent at a comrade’s apartment eating, hanging out, talking about demos in other countries that people had attended, drinking coffee and the local beverage Bretagne cidre.

At around 6pm we all headed out the door to see what was on the organizer of the event’s mind. We arrived at the rendezvous to find maybe 50 folks hanging out in small groups. Many were drinking beer, and the mood was decidedly more relaxed than the initial encounter in the morning. Some of the comrades were certain it was going to be an autonomist shenanigan, but only a few were there, and they seemed as curious as the rest of us. Finally about a half hour later a guy went from group to group, spoke for a minute or two and then would move on. He approached us and said that we were going to the theater area in Nantes and show support for some of the workers there, and that after we would meet at a park for food and drink. By now there were about 75 folks total and we set off to our first destination, walking initially in the center of the tram tracks and then blocking the road as we finished the march. Loud whistles and shouts came from the group, and occasionally folks would chant or sing. Everyone felt good, as I learned on a hot August night thirty years ago, its great to riot, and nantesgraffiti2even better to do it and not get caught. As we neared the theater area in Nantes we came upon the rear of the Nantes Opera and wheeled down one of the building’s side streets, finally pouring into a central plaza. As we arrived applause and shouts from protestors already there could be heard. Finally coming into view of the plaza it took about two seconds to realize that this was no show of support, it was something very different indeed.

Arrayed in the front of the Greco-roman columned Opera, were about 100 folks dressed in casual, but expensive attire. They had tans. They wore Rolex’s. And they were really pissed off. Standing under the portico were dozens of radicals who moved in and out of the Opera building freely. Occasionally someone from the plaza would walk up the steps, negotiate a path through the malcontents, enter the building and ask a question or two of what looked like Opera employees. Inside the building a man stood on the steps that led into the theater proper, he waved a large CGT red flag. The foyer was packed with folks from the morning march;[:] autonomists, anarchists, radicals, union folks. After one look I turned to a comrade and said, “It’s an occupation.”
“Not yet. We’re not completely into the theater. But it could be,” he replied.

In one sense the modern revolutionary era was kicked off by an occupation, that of the Bastille. In fact, as the July Column (that commemorates the revolution of 1830) stands in the place of the hated Bastille to this day — one could conjecture that this specific occupation has continued for 200+ years. The other occupation the situation called to mind was the seizure of the Odeon Theater in Paris on 15 May 1968, by a revolutionary committee of artists and students. They held the theater for a little less than a month when it was finally forcefully cleared by CRS goons.

The would-be occupiers in Nantes were listening to a well dressed woman speak to them from the stairs when I pushed my way inside. She thanked them for coming, expressed hope that the Loi du Travail manifs would be successful and then asked them to leave. Of course, no one budged. There was some additional milling around by the protestors. I went in and out of the building several times, the bourgeois who stood in the plaza and watched as their evening plans were being shattered fascinated me. Their faces were alternately angry, confused and indignant. Once or twice I caught a conversation between a protestor and one of the plaza crowd. The bougeois would ask questions like, “How could you do this?” Alternating with demands that the mob move on to other engagements. Like she was speaking to a child. And protestors would fire back about the Loi du Travail, the ZAD, or just ignore the question, and the questioner, completely.
Meanwhile on the plaza, two men in suits viewed the full scene from a nantesopera3distance. I turned to a comrade pointing them out with a nod of my head and he said, “Right. Likely CRS officers, deciding what to do.”
I walked back inside to watch a brief shoving match had broken out between the Opera employees and the protestors. It was pretty low key, as these things go. In fact the crowd seemed less interested in a full occupation that in taking the protest into the enemy camp. And if that was the goal, they succeeded.

Finally, some food and beer showed up for the mob. Evidently they had decided to party in the shadow of the Opera. The folks I had come with decided to eat elsewhere. So we walked off as the protestors milled about inside and outside the theater, talked, ate food, and relaxed.
I still was confused about the almost complete absence of cops; save the two CRS supervisors and some Nantes gendarmes who rode by on scooters, we had seen no one. I asked about this and got a reply that illustrates in many ways the ongoing nature of social contestation in France. The comrade replied, “They won’t do anything as long as the protestors eat and drink and don’t destroy anything. This is a nice neighborhood, they won’t attack unless absolutely necessary.”

As we walked we came upon another plaza removed by about 200 yards from the Opera plaza. In it dozens of gendarmes in full riot gear lounged by crowd control vehicles, talked, and waited to see if they would eventually be needed. Oddly they looked as relaxed as the crowd they were supposed to be ready to mercilessly attack with teargas and truncheon. That night, however, evidently in everyone’s opinion, another riot just didn’t seem worth the bother.

Dispatches from France One: the Forces Behind Events, Autonomism and Anarchism, and What Time Is It?

El Errante

My decision to travel to Europe was taken lackadaisically. There had been some indications that nation-states on the Continent were being stressed from a number of different directions. First, the movement of upwards of two million refugees from the Middle East, specifically Syria, through the social-democratic European heartland is challenging the legitimacy of both the economic and security structures of numerous states. It should be noted that the dual nature of the stress, on social redistribution schemes and border integrity, indicates that both ideological left and right are being drawn into the legitimacy maelstrom, and that the moment of the challenge, its core, is situated to call into question not just the nation-state or Capital, rather they illuminate the failure of the entire Western liberal hegemon, the whole enchilada. So, I thought, why not? I feel like traveling and writing and the timing seemed somehow, perfect.

In spite of being detained and interrogated by two Homeland Security investigators at JFK, who proved to be far better informed about my trip to Rojava in October, international speaking tours, and what I had for breakfast (that day) than I thought was possible, I was eventually released and allowed to board my flight, though without the obligatory x-ray examination of my baggage. As I hunkered down into my seat on the first leg of the trip to Moscow via Aeroflot I reflected that it will likely be a long time before I return to the United States. I will not miss it.Nuit Debout4

The first two days in Paris were allotted to rest, visiting a few museums, sitting in cafes, and consuming copious (and potentially lethal) amounts of caffeine and baguette. Finally on Sunday I walked through spring fog and drizzle to the Place de la République to see what was happening with Nuit Debout. In the photos I had seen of the first few days of the occupations the Place (a rectangle of about two acres where a number of thoroughfares converge including Rue du Temple, Boulevard Voltaire, and Boulevard Saint-Martin) had been virtually overrun by thousands of people. On the day I visited there were perhaps a few hundred folks, most sheltered under a dozen or so blue tarps that had been set up at random to accommodate various collectives, Nuit Debout logistics and publicity coordinating groups, and the occasional alphabet soup Marxist Party propaganda committee. On the afternoon I stopped by most of these tents were being used for presentations on a range of topics. These included DIY carpentry, a BiehlNuitDeboutworkshop on capitalism, “commune cause,” and a mini-assembly which appeared to be more about providing a venue for folks to vent than any specific debate or decision-making. At one tent a small YPG flag was set on a tabletop and as I circled outside I noticed that a smallish middle-aged woman was speaking and that questions would be translated for her and her responses were being translated for the listeners. I finally got a view of this presenter — and was not surprised to see that it was Janet Biehl; Murray Bookchin’s companion. I continued walking around for an hour or so, would stop and listen to a presenter and then move on.

Finally, tired of the mist and rain, I made my way to the Fédération Anarchiste (FA) infoshop just off of République. It was, as usual, busy. The FA, a synthesist working class confederation, is one of the more stable anarchist organizations in France. Meaning that while the FA is an excellent point of contact for folks traveling in Europe, it also makes of the FA one of the targets for bullshit sectarian attacks. A sectarianism that in many ways exceeds the petty sniping, character assassination and trolling that the North American anarchist community once reveled in, but now appears to be putting aside.

One of the anarchists, Lou, that I had met on my way home from Rojava was there and he and I settled into the back of the infoshop and talked a little about the renewed social contestation in France. First off, he said, no one saw this coming. The French anarchist community had pretty much given up hope on any significant social contestation for decades to come. The proposal of the Loi du Travail and its effective NuitDebout3unleashing of employers to hire, fire and discipline, essentially at will, was less an attempt to revivify the French economy than it was a direct challenge to workers and their protection under law. The large reformist trade unions, like the CGT, missed their cue completely, and the attendant riots were essentially the coming together of three distinct groups, high school students, the anarchists and the autonomists. The first two are pretty obvious; the autonomists are a new quantity (for us) and require some discussion. This amorphous group first formed around the journal Tiqqun and the subsequent Invisible Committee. The autonomists then, like the nihilist communists, reject any descriptions of the society that they envision bringing into being. In many ways the autonomists are the logical extension of the Situationist International and while Marx isn’t mentioned in as explicit a fashion as the SI claimed him as their own, their use of the dialectic, and some aspects of Marxist teleology is apparent. This has not diminished their militancy, and they have refined street contestation and tactics into a virtual art. They have also sought to organize those sectors of society largely ignored by both unionists and anarchists, including high school students. They have also proven themselves to be savvy at the placement of their ideas within mainstream media outlets. This has had the effect of placing their critique within the larger framework of French political discourse, regardless of how radical it appears. It has also placed them beyond the narrow confines of the emergency laws instituted after the Charlie NuitDebout2Hebdo attack and the ISIL bombing campaign. As an example the prosecution of the Tarnac 9 (the same group of folks who wrote The Coming Insurrection) never occurred, and probably never will. The acceptance (or at least acknowledgement) of the ideas of the autonomists among mainstream academics and theorists has removed them from the category of social villain that the anarchists and jihadis now inhabit almost exclusively. The formation and growth of autonomist organizations has also been rapid, and they have been fiercely competitive for members with larger more established organizations. As an example the French student union UNEF has had its membership raided by the autonomist high school organization MILI.

Finally, the autonomists are clear in distancing themselves from anarchism and the anarchists; in spite of some theoretical confluence, especially their critique of the dominant society and their understanding of insurrection. Which resembles some historical anarchist critiques (Stirner) and to a lesser degree recent anti-civilization theory.

The autonomists, the anarchists, and the high school students responded decisively to the proposed Loi du Travail, staging a number of ad hoc demonstrations. In the end, however, the filming of a student being beaten by the police galvanized the protestors and finally brought the unions, and everyone else, into the fray. Tensions have Nuitdebout1risen dramatically since then, the legislation itself became law when the Chamber of Deputies employed a little used legal caveat that ended debate and allowed the legislative cowards to vote by not voting. Demonstrations have been ongoing, and Lou invited me to the next big manif, on Thursday, May 26th. I jumped at the chance and we made plans to meet prior to the march.

(In the ensuing three days between meeting Lou and the manif the reformist union CGT struck at all eight oil refineries in France, and has also attempted to block entry to several of the nation’s nuclear power plants. Supplies of oil and gas have begun to dwindle, and as the CGT is the primary union for most of the transportation sector, their ability to pressure both the government and corporations into repealing the legislation will increase algorithmically.)

The next few weeks may prove decisive not only for the Loi du Travail, but for significant sectors of the economy, the political classes, and the population generally. The stress that the Syrian refugees are bringing to bear on European society seems to be matched, if not exceeded by, economic stagnation, emerging political authoritarianism, and what appears to be a restive, increasingly alienated citizenry. So the timing of the European trip was not bad. And timing, as we all know, is everything