Reds In My Street

photo: smoke and demo, tuesday

Last Tuesday, 80,000 demonstrators marched past my home.

This Wasn't In the Brochure

Paris:- Tuesday, 26. November 2002:- Dimitri phones around 10:00 after I have been asleep about four hours. He seems to want to borrow my three-iron golf club so he can hobble down to see a doctor about his infected heel. I am pretty sure this is what he says.

I tell him a golf club isn't a good support and go back to sleep. Have I been awake? How has he remembered it has been almost exactly two years since I had tried using the golf club as a cane? This is right - he has asked to borrow a cane, forgetting I used the golf club when my leg was in a cast

The radio news wakes me 100 minutes later and the sun is still shining, which surprises me because it hasn't been predicted. I also catch the phrase, 'manifestation at Denfert.' This isn't clear because I have to deal with a post-Metropole hangover.

While eating breakfast when most people are thinking about lunch, I hear whistles. It's too early to be closing the cemetery. I hear horns tooting, I hear voices, shouts.

I get up and go over to look out of the window. On the sidewalk opposite, beside the cemetery wall, there are groups of people wearing red hats and carrying flags, mostly red. Clouds are lowering into the cemetery. The people are walking towards the east, heading towards Denfert.

Finally I remember - there is to be a major anti-government protest today. Against making state concernsphoto: heading to denfert private - and against whatever plans there are about retirement funds - like requiring everybody to work longer before they become eligible for pensions. Workers who have been already hacking away for 35 years are disturbed.

On the way from Montparnasse to Denfert-Rochereau.

Radio France-Info says the police have chased off another trucker's barricade. The steam has been taken out of the threatened strikes by truck drivers because four out of six unions have accepted the employers' proposals.

The radio says Air France was only getting two planes out of ten off the ground, and follows with the numbers of the strike-affected métro lines. It also says there is another important demonstration going on outside the Ministry of Finance at Bercy. Maybe it is someplace else - but not at Denfert.

Out on the street, I briefly join the throngs of demonstrators carrying flags, heading for Denfert. To get to the marché, I go over to Daguerre, and they are coming down it too. I keep going diagonally towards the marché.

The sun is gone now. The wooly sky is getting lower. The metal grates around the tree trunks are glistening with slippery condensation. The marché itself is its usually collection of ladies or all ages buying something for lunch.

With my purchases I drift up Mouton-Duvernet towards the Avenue Leclerc. I leave out 'Général du' for this street's name. If the city catches me putting it in, they've got three more names in reserve to add to it. It is empty of traffic. It has been diverted at Alésia. Some people are walking in the middle of the street, but not many.

The Place Denfert-Rochereau is sealed off. There are a lot of people in it and more are arriving all the time. Standing opposite the métro exit at Daguerre, I see demonstrators pour out of the exit by the dozens. Many carry flags.

Métro lines crucial to today's demonstration are not on strike of course. Nor are the SNCF's train lines bringing demonstrators to Paris. But how the SNCF is operating today is a good question - maybe half the people at Denfert are railroad workers.

Above the crowd, the sky has almost come down to touch the tops of the red flags. There are green flags. Therephoto: crowd at denfert are Breton black and white flags too. Entrepreneurs have sent up snack stands. These give off clouds of smoke, not made more gay by their Orangina parasols.

Two hours before the begin of the demo, at Denfert.

Despite the general gloom from smoke rising and clouds descending, the feeling in the air is of a holiday. Demonstrators make up many jolly shoppers in the Monoprix, buying sandwiches and water to drink. The shop is clogged with the regular shoppers too. I decide to skip it until the checkout lines are shorter.

When I get to the café Le Bouquet it is overfull with its noontime crowd plus hordes of demonstrators. I skip this too. I push on up Daguerre to the café Naguére, thinking it must be far enough away from Denfert.

Demonstrators are standing three deep at the bar. The café's staff are dealing out cafés like cards. The cup-at-a-time espresso machine was not made for this kind of bunched service. But everybody gets a thimble of café, even if they don't get a completely clean spoon.

At the boulangerie another two blocks uphill, the take-out sandwiches are being snatched up. Here I stay and wait for my bread. There might not be any left in another hour.

The cross-street to my place is one of few normal streets around. The parking-ticket ladies, who have their local headquarters here, tell me it is like this every time there's a demonstration set to launch from Denfert.

The apartment agency ladies didn't tell me this. For national demos held in Paris, my neighborhood is the passage of choice between the Montparnasse train station and Denfert.

At the corner of the cross-street and the cemetery street, a small band of 'Alternatives' have hung a banner from my building, accompanied by flanking flags. They have set up a picnic table, with 'Alternative' magazines on it.

On looking these over I decide 'Alternative' is an alternative name for Anarcho-Syndicalists. They are promoting government by the governed. The fellows on this stand are friendly. The are even excited - for all I know this is the first time they've tried out the 'Alternative' name in public.

More people than ever are streaming towards Denfert. This is my 'day off,' so I quit the sightseeing and go into my building. Since I am seriously sleep-deprived, today is coin-laundry day, and it's already later than usual to get to the place while other Tuesday washers are having their lunches.

About 14:00, before I get to go anywhere, there are sounds of sirens. A cavalcade of official cars is comingphoto: cgt union banners up the street, using both lanes, towards Montparnasse. I can't figure this out. Has something happened?

Unfolding the banners before starting the march.

But no. This is the beginning of the demonstration parade. My street is the parade route. Everybody who walked east to Denfert is now walking back, west, with their banners unfurled, with their flags high. The rail workers also have lots of emergency flares, and these are lit everywhere - with their bight red burning spots in the middle of clouds of smoke, mingling with the clouds sitting right on top of the cemetery.

Eerie is how it looks. Drums are banged, loud and booming sound trucks pass, amplified slogans are shouted, chants are chanted - accompanied by horns, whistles and firecrackers.

On the way out with my sacks of laundry, the street looks like a war zone. A block away there is calm, but I can still hear it all. Glancing back I see smoke and the red emergency flares.

It is late when I finish. Returning on Cassendi, I think it may be over because the intersection at Emile Richard looks clear. Five paces further on I see it is full again. More smoke and drums.

Government workers, Air France personnel, retired civil servants and rail workers from all over France are still passing from Denfert to Montparnasse. Some of them have slipped over to Daguerre for cocktails in Le Naguére where I see them while having a post-laundry café.

Some are a bit ripped up. Two hours in, they are only 600 metres from the depart, and there are a few kilometres yet to go. They try to cajole a 'round on the house' from the patron, but even union guys only get one of these after being steady customers for at least 10 years. The patron does take their souvenir photo though.

Up in my apartment, the street looks like it did before, except that it is getting darker fast. Slowly I become aware that it is quieter. I see that the end of the parade is followed by more official cars and trucks.

There is a 15-minute pause before the city street sweepers show up. Some have leaf-blowers and are trying to whoosh the pamphlets from under the parked cars. These are followed by a green and white truck, that is not doing a good job picking up everything blown into the roadway.

They are not bothering with all the various union stickers plastered to the parking metres. They must make several passes, because not one of these is left in the morning.

France-2's TV-news shows clips shot in my street. They say the demonstration dispersed quietly at 18:00 at Sèvres-Babylone, after proceeding along the Boulevard Pasteur and the Rue de Sèvres. They say it took four hours to pass any given spot.

It took exactly three hours for the parade to pass my place. At first TV-new says there were 100,000 on the march, but this is revised downwards to 80,000.

The following day's edition of Le Parisien has the story buried on page six. Another 140,000 workersphoto: les alternatifs and retirees demonstrated throughout France, in other big towns and cities. Rail workers came from Belgium to march in Paris.

My building! My building with banners! With flags!

Other news was that three Socialist ex-ministers who tried to join the head of the parade were booed out. They had in fact, been invited by the CGT organizers - but not to be at the head of the parade. The lady ex-minister of employment took refuge in one of the building entries in my street.

The same Le Parisien's front page probably sums up the country's mood - which is one desired by the government. 'Small Win for the PSG' with a photo, which is below 'School Violence' - "Trop c'est trop."

The public workers demonstrations are at the top of the page, in small type. The headline says 'the manifestations weren't full up.' If this is what the paper says I guess I should believe it instead of remembering that they took three hours to pass beneath my window.

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