Paris, 23 March 2023, 13:00.
I numb my sore throat with a couple of lozenges, the chills of fever with a few sweaters, and head out. It’s warm and jolly outside, but I can barely walk out of fatigue. Public transit is immobilized by striking workers, while the municipal bike-rental system is useless: I find a free bike only near the Bastille, where the protest against pension reform actually is. A. has been waiting for me for more than an hour there. I join the crowd where I spend another hour trying to find him in the endless sea of bodies, posters, speeches and music. In the evening we read that we were 1.2 million people according to the Ministry of the Interior and 3.5 million according to the trade unions.
I’ve never been to a protest so large. I stop feeling the cold and the tiredness out of sheer excitement and admiration. Nothing can infuse you with energy like the collective subject of the protest. I spot people from the Greek Communist Party. A citizen near me sports a poster saying “Bourdieu is with us”.
The whole sight infuses me with warmth. A. and I march to the opera, where we part with the protest. Later, over dinner with friends from the local leftist scene, we find out that there are riots and barricades around the center. A. is tempted, but I’m spent and have to gather my strength for the next day.
A10 motorway, 24 March 2023, 13:30.
On the way to the protest against yet another controversial huge water tank project in Sainte-Soline, we pull over for gas, toilet and food. As with the pension reform, these reservoirs are a form of shifting the costs of the crisis onto society – only this time of the climate crisis (more on that shortly). We munch on half-baked pizzas while the driver H. frantically checks the latest traffic updates from the organizers. A. is elated about P’s documentary film about Palestine. I notice they’re selling cheap sunglasses and I buy a pair. Not that they would stop the tear gas, but I’d better have something against shrapnel.
The men are more prepared than I am and bring swimming goggles stashed under the car seats in case the cops stop us. H. tells of confiscated goggles and masks, even though these are not illegal items. I entertain a vague hope that my sunglasses will not be incriminating evidence.
A drive that is normally about 3 hours takes us 7 as we try to avoid police blockades around the protest site. We drive along dirt roads literally rutted by tractors and combine harvesters and finally arrive without being stopped for inspection even once. Our destination is a tent camp in an agricultural field. It was set up by protesters in response to the cordoning off of the area around Sainte-Soline water facility by police and gendarmerie. The camp is impressive: there are toilets, two bars, an infirmary, tents for food, for the legal and communications teams.
We pitch our tent and decide to explore. As the sun sets and temperatures drop, I heroically stack two pairs of jeans over my thermal leggings. These complement my two woolen t-shirts, two sweaters, a puffer jacket and a coat. It seems mawkish but the flu and my dysfunctional thyroid amplify my cold intolerance to unbearable levels. We buy a glass of wine and join a meeting where the organizers communicate important details about the next day’s tactics. Because we don’t speak French and E., A.’s friend and protest organizer, is unreachable because he has deliberately turned off his phone – I sidle up to a girl and ask her to translate the essentials. We are told that we have to be up and ready by 8am tomorrow. The protest will split into three “fingers” – blue, green and pink – which will surround and attack the water reservoir. The color codes express different degrees of confrontation. The blue will be at the front and will shoulder the bulk of the police violence. The pink will march at the back. We prudently decide to join the pink finger.
The assembly ends, the dinner team arrives and we find a place around the campfire where we eat in complete silence. Suddenly it starts raining and we gallop through the mud back to the tent. I only take off my coat and tuck myself into my sleeping bag. I have no experience camping and I haven’t brought a mat, but A. magnanimously offers me his. I do have experience with insomnia, however, and I bring melatonin. We wolf down double the recommended dose and pray that we will be able to fall asleep amidst the heavy rain, the crunching footsteps and the loud voices of the people around us. A. falls asleep quickly but it takes me forever.
March 25, impossibly early in the morning.
Thunderous snoring from a neighboring tent wakes me. I accidentally touch the floor of the tent and am horrified to discover that it is completely drenched. Thankfully my mat and sleeping bag are dry, but A.’s sleeps directly on the wet floor. My coat is wet and I go outside wearing only my thin puffer jacket to find a toilet. At the sight of the endless queues outside the shacks surrounding the pits supposed to collect human waste, I start to shake and cry from the biting cold, the mud, the head-splitting lack of sleep and the sore throat, and return to the tent. Good thing we have a shelter, so I manage to relieve myself in relative isolation outside the tent itself. I document this for one purpose: I’ve gone to war but I’m not even remotely ready for one. The people around are not younger than us but they seem more experienced and more resilient. For example, I spot a guy trudging directly barefoot in the mud instead of hoping their shoes won’t soak up their three pairs of socks, like I pathetically do. As Pierre Bourdieu says, it’s not enough just to arm minds with arguments to fight, we have to train the bodies too.
We find coffee and the day becomes a little brighter and more welcoming, despite the chill, the flu, the clouds and the mud. The activists form ranks and set off. We join the first finger we spot. It turns out to be the blue one, but I don’t care anymore while A. is happy because he wants to see the action up close. According to various estimates, the road from the camp to the water tank is between 7 and 9 kilometers, but the awesome energy of the protest energizes me. A brass band marches with us, playing military marches and revolutionary songs. To war as to war.
What is the deal with these water reservoirs? As climate change worsens, France is getting drier. In 2022, the Loire dried up, the summer wildfires in New Aquitaine became legendary, while this year the season started as early as March with bushfires in the Pyrenees. Large agribusinesses are adapting to the drought by building (with public funds!) huge outdoor water tanks in the fields, so-called mega bassines, or mega reservoirs that pump and collect groundwater in winter for the dry summer months. And they squander it, according to protesters, by evaporating it and by using it to irrigate water-intensive monocultures such as corn for livestock feed, stretching further the already extremely strained water resources. Not to mention the greenhouse gasses that this type of farming emits into the atmosphere, exacerbating the drought problem in the first place. Meanwhile, in line with the prevailing approach to climate adaptation, small farmers and gardeners are being lectured to tighten their belts and conserve water under threat of harsh fines. They do not have access to the mega reservoirs that are de facto privatizing water. As droughts turn water into an increasingly precious and scarce resource, competition over it is only slated to intensify. Meanwhile state funding pours into short-term climate pseudo-solution for private benefit with disastrous long-term effects, like these noxious reservoirs.
Finally we reach the water tank, which is surrounded by 3,000 police armed to the teeth, by police vans, cars and a water cannon. How ironic, A. observes, that a water cannon should be mobilized to protect the water. Two police helicopters have been circling ominously over the field since the previous day. The police immediately start to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd, but in the back of the blue finger it does not sting yet. It helps that the wind is blowing against the police and returning the gas to its source. It’s like nature itself was with us that day. We are approaching the front line. The first of four lit police cars is already burning and a thick layer of oily black clouds enscone the nearby tree. The only carbon emissions we welcome!
Policemen on and around the tank keep firing stun, shrapnel grenades and tear gas canisters. I later find out that they fired over 4,000 grenades in an hour and a half, or one almost every two seconds. My eyes burn and I’m not sure if it’s the gas, the horrible smell of scorching plastic, or a mix of the two. We all wear FFP2 masks – the forgotten pandemic prop suddenly pops back into relevance. The soundscape of constant grenades and tear gas, which bursts forths like fireworks before it rolls like mist over the field, is complemented by a group of protesters who drag a giant loudspeaker through the mud, beaming the nervous staccato of gabba techno. A. itches to throw a few rocks at the police cars and tells me to wait for him by the loudspeaker.
Some of the people are dancing to the gabba, and adding to the surrealism underpinned by the intensifying police fire, the brass band marches by. This side of the protest is part war, part party, part concert in ever-shifting proportions. As the orchestra gets a round of applause, a group of protesters carry out the first victim: a young woman with a gunshot wound behind the knee. A. has just returned. They put her right in front of us on a soft foam stretcher. The medical team instantly turns the battlefield into a field hospital. With practiced movements the doctors tear the blood-stained trousers and begin to treat the wound. It is the first time I see a real gunshot wound live and up close. The woman cries and squirms in pain on the ground. It dawns on me that we are too close to the front and I curse our recklessness. We pull a little to the side and I notice a man sitting with a bloodied eye patch. Another one has had half his upper lip blown off. Ubiquitous mud, “broken faces”: I almost got a taste of the First World War.
In the commotion we have not noticed that policemen on ATVs have been inching behind us. We spot them at the last moment and make a dash for it. A few days later, back in Paris E says the policemen were shooting from the ATVs, which is illegal. The bottom line: over 300 wounded, three people in intensive care, one protester has life-threatening injuries from shrapnel that tore their carotid artery (and the police deliberately delayed the ambulance), another lost an eye, a third may lose an eye, and a fourth – the ability to walk.
By 2 pm we decide we’ve seen enough and head for camp. My eyes are welling, not just because of the tear gas, but because of the thought of all those impossible miles of walking back to the tent. We get lucky and a van full of elderly protesters picks us up and drops us off in front of the camp. The mud hasn’t dried one iota. We slouch to the tent which is in a sorry state. I half-jokingly suggest to A. that we abandon it and leave because we have to somehow get to Angoulême by the evening, where we will take a train to my friend’s place. He almost considers the suggestion. But we pack everything up anyway, and being the more brash of the two, I start stopping cars and begging them to drop us off on the main road where we can hitch a ride to Angoulême.
Everything hurts me but I’m grateful that at least I don’t carry the tent. Suddenly I spot a car in our direction and almost throw myself under its tires. The kind man behind the wheel takes mercy and picks us up along with another woman from the camp. We are up to our ears in mud and accordingly sully the whole car. We apologize profusely but the guy laughs it off and says the risk is acceptable. Just before we enter a nearby village we get pulled over by the police. The area is still cordoned off and all cars are being stopped and searched.
An endlessly pedantic check begins, ending with a €90 fine to our companion who forgot to fasten her seatbelt. Eventually our benefactor drops us off at an intersection, where 10 minutes later a woman, who also happens to be from the protest, stops at our desperate waving and drives us to Angoulême. She starts looking at us respectfully when we tell her we were in the blue finger. She has a small holding and disagrees with the practices of the big landowners. I’m not listening too intently, because the cold and the fatigue are knocking me down again. Yet despite my condition, I’m happy and I can’t believe our luck: I had expected at least 5-6 grueling hours to the cherished shower, roof and dry bed, yet we made it in less than two, thanks to the generosity and solidarity of complete strangers. The contrast with the next day, which we spent leisurely reading and chatting over red wine around the fireplace with my friend and her guests, drag dancers from Tunisia, could not have been greater.
In September 2020, I was running from a water cannon on the streets of Sofia, as the liberal media waxed indignant over the hitherto uncharacteristic display of sadistic police violence against protesters. Without wanting to minimize police brutality in Bulgaria, it is no match to what I experienced in France. Not that I didn’t expect it: during the famed Yellow Vests protests, news reports of the police amputating limbs poured in but the police violence in Sainte-Soline was apocalyptic even by French standards.
This is precisely why 30,000 protesters were unable to sabotage the water tank, which is otherwise easily vulnerable insofar as a small cut in the membrane is enough to wreck it. Previous such actions have been successful, but against half as many police. Later in Paris, E. denied that the attempt had been demoralizing, but subsequently admitted that they were unlikely to call such a protest again soon. Even seasoned French activists are in shock at the level of brutality with which the police protected the private reservoir of large farmers. The next day, in an unprecedented violation of the basic civil right of association, the government declared the organizer of the protest, Les soulèvements de la terre (The Earth’s Uprisings), an outlaw. Instead of disbanding the violent motorized police unit BRAV-M, for which more than 150 000 signatures have already been collected, the Ministry of the Interior applied itself to reprisals against the environmentalists.
On my way to Sofia, I leaf through Bulgarian news about France. Sainte-Soline escapes our media’s attention, unlike the millions-strong protests against the pension reform. The level of reporting is shockingly illiterate.
A news report in Dnevnik, a professional as opposed to tabloid media, emphasizes that the protesters are not defending their social rights from the violence of yet another neoliberal attack, but are themselves the source of violence, even more than the police and the government, which is simply trying to “calm” the situation (which it itself has caused with the ill-calculated and undemocratically pushed reform). Adding insult to injury, the pesky protesters dare to litter the beautiful French capital, now suffocating under mountains of rubbish that striking garbage collectors refuse to remove!
The Bulgarian edition of the German outlet Deutsche Welle chimes in that the German pensioners do not understand the French protests because they will soon retire at 67. Therefore, the French have no reason to complain. If ever anyone needed proof that Schadenfreude hurts the beholder the most, that must be it.
An analytical article in the conservative journal Portal Culture, which can afford some bias, descends into crazy antics by declaring the protesters greater barbarians than the Nazi occupiers for setting ablaze to the “City of Light” – a savagery even the Nazis stopped short of doing. The article proclaims Macron is correct to demand an increase in the retirement age and belt-tightening to patch up a deficit in the Republican budget to the amount of €3 trillion. What we are not told, however, is that taxing French billionaires more aggressively could also help with the deficit (the ten richest among them have increased their fortunes by €189 billion since 2020!), instead of always shifting the maintenance of the state and the crises of the capitalist system onto the shoulders of the workers. The article fails to mention that the deficit was accumulated during the COVID-19 crisis, when the government propped up the private sector. Nor does it mention that Macron has not stopped slashing the private sector’s taxes since his first term.
When the ideologues of state and market chart the way forward, it is always at the expense of alternative directions, muted, obscured and elided by the expert hubris with which we are served the neoliberal TINA of austerity. This recipe, however, rarely applies to capital; capital can avail itself of public funds to build water tanks, protect them through the security services of the police and whatever else it needs to continue business as usual.
That is why employers’ organizations are one of the few who have supported Macron’s pension reform. Let the workers, peasants, small farmers and the climate foot the bill! This is what French society erupted against, showing once again that the tradition of May 1968 is alive and throbbing, unlike the amnestic and lifeless quagmire of the Bulgarian dystopian capitalist realism. The latter is nothing more than a mega bassine filled to the brim with right-wing ideological miasma from which our society has no power to extricate itself, even if people are forced to work till they drop dead at 80+ years, with no pensions, no social safety nets, no rights, and probably soon no water.
The text was first published in Bulgarian on the Collective for Social Intervention site. Photos: Jana Tsoneva.