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“Everyone Wanted to Escape the Police”: How Macron’s Police Machine Smashed the May Day Protest

Last updated on 28th July 2019

According to the authorities, some of the protesters “stole” the parade on May 1st in Paris. Since the procession, and to listen to the testimonies, it is another picture that is emerging. At Pitié-Salpêtrière and on Boulevard Saint-Marcel, thousands of people of all ages were confined in a huge trap, gradually closed with truncheons and tear gas. Some of them had to take refuge in the halls of buildings to avoid being crushed and suffocated. Faithful to the orders given, the police showed an aggressiveness that, far from being limited to its declared adversaries, brutalised the whole event.

Wednesday, May 1st, there is what happened in the hospital grounds of Pitié-Salpêtrière, whose details are now known. And there’s what happened outside, in the gigantic trap of police-encircled protesters, which lasted for about an hour at the intersection of Boulevard de l’Hôpital and Boulevard Saint-Marcel, where “Basta!” was present. The central part of the event, which was very dense and compact across its entire width, was not only blocked, but also copiously sprayed with tear gas at the time of the said “intrusion” into the hospital, at around 4:15 pm. The procession was, in fact, literally dislocated with truncheons, gas, grenades, and water cannons.

The ten minutes or so of the final charge, which took place around 5 pm, was endless for thousands of people crushed against each other, with no other way out than the stairwells of neighbouring buildings for those who could get into them. Suffocating, spitting, holding on to each other in order to avoid falling and being trampled, in the stress of tear gas shells that fell on heads, explosions of grenades, then the blows of the truncheons that approached. A scene of chaos provoked by a new manoeuvre of the police, at least a priori in terms of scale: to transform the traditional “nasse” [trap – ed] into a vice grip, gradually closed on the demonstrators.

Doctrine of “harassing” black-bloc

“It was being fired in front of us, and also behind us,” said Yoann, a protester stuck by the manoeuvre. “All the streets were closed, it was impossible to go out, even for those who wanted to,” continues the young man, a student at Sciences Po Strasbourg. “We were scared. There were children, old people. People were having anxiety attacks”. “There was no way out,” confirms Benoît, another witness also contacted by “Basta!”. “Behind, there was bludgeoning. That’s what made people panic. On the other side, there were ‘voltigeurs’ (motorcycle brigades). They advanced, but stopped at the crossroads, because there were too many people “

Until then, the progress of the procession had been quiet, and even rather festive. Long clashes took place in Montparnasse before its departure, between 12:30 and 14:00. As a result, seemingly, of the new police doctrine of “harassment” aimed at preventing at all costs the constitution of a black-bloc. Taken in the middle of the first charges and the firing of teargas, the vans of the trade unions, surmounted by the traditional balloons with the colours of the various confederations, were then drowned in the crowd.

“The demonstration was red, black, yellow … it was quiet and motivated”

Once the first hundreds of meters had been covered by foot, including the bottleneck formed by the dozens of police protecting the restaurant “La Rotonde” – where Emmanuel Macron had celebrated his qualification for the second round of the presidential election in 2017 – the spectacle of an interminable, dense procession, occupying the breadth of Boulevard Montparnasse, presented itself to the eyes [1]. Coming in numbers, still determined, the Yellow Vests were mixed with the other demonstrators in a huge “leading procession” of tens of thousands of people, which almost ended up becoming, this May 1st 2019, the demonstration in itself. The trade-union procession, reduced to the essentials, started later, at the end of the parade. Many trade unionists were already in the first part.

Appearing during the protests against the labour law of 2016, the leading procession – the self-organised part of the demonstration, positioned in front of the union square – has since steadily gained appeal and numbers. It can include groups of striking employees as well as students, precarious workers, feminists, antifascists, or political activists from various backgrounds on the left-wing. Trade unionists have made it a habit to join it. Its members find themselves in the will of a more offensive practice of demonstrating, more turned towards tilting the balance of power. A “black bloc”, whose modes of action include the use of violence and the destruction of symbols of capitalism, is often in the front row, but is only a part of it.

In the political radicalism that it expresses, deeply rooted in the new militant generations, and by its self-organized character, the leading procession actually lent itself quite naturally to the Yellow Vests for May 1st. “It was colourful, very mixed,” said Benoît, a 46-year-old architect who is used to demonstrations. “With people of all ages. It was not even the usual procession. The chaotic departure mixed everyone up.” “When the police charged from the start, the police mixed up the eggs!” said an amused Yellow Vest to us concerning the course of the demo. “The demonstration was red, black, yellow … it was quiet, but very motivated,” summarised the feminist blogger Emma, ​​contacted by “Basta!”.

“Revolution!, Revolution!”

Along the boulevards, the protesters chanted song that have become habitual: “We are here, yes we are here, even if Macron does not want it, we are here …”, “anti, anti-capitalist!”, or “Everyone detests the police” – a slogan that now seems to be almost unanimous in the processions, used by thousands of people. The “Macron – resignation!” that is historic for Yellow Vests, meanwhile is no longer a recipe. It is now, since a few weeks ago, “Revolution! – Revolution!” that makes the windows of the Parisian boulevards tremble. The determination with which the slogan is echoed, by the Yellow Vests and by other demonstrators, suggests that it is no longer just a statement of principle.

Nevertheless, at this point, the gendarmes and CRS who closed all the streets perpendicular to the route seemed rather relaxed: the demonstrators parade didn’t take much interest in them – and vice versa. Everything shifted at around 16:00, when the procession was facing a police barricade, reinforced with two water cannons, set up just above the Faculty of Medicine, on Boulevard de l’Hôpital. Bordering, therefore, the site of Pitié-Salpêtrière. Clashes then took place further upstream of the event, as it approached its point of arrival in Place d’Italie. Far behind the police barricade, there was a plume of smoke rising in the sky.

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Faced with a cordon CRS, obviously intended to isolate the bulk of the demonstration from these clashes and people who are further ahead, a very compact crowd, thousands of people, was trapped and prevented from moving forward. It was not a black-bloc, but the same heterogeneous and mixed procession, whose members are all ages and among which very few are masked. A few minutes before, the same people were still parading quietly.

Raining tear gas, truncheons and water cannons

Some of the protesters eventually came forward, with some hesitation at the beginning, to put pressure on the barricade. The crowd piled up, everyone wanted to move on. The minutes stretched, the tension rose a little. After a while, a few bottles and other items flew towards the police. Nothing, however, that seemed to justify what would follow. Overall, the crowd was still pretty calm. But one of the two water cannons, so far turned in the opposite direction, towards Place d’Italie, started to manoeuvre. After a half-turn, it faced the protesters.

It is then that a rain of tear gas started to fall on them, while the CRS bludgeoned as they moved forward. This was at around 4:15 pm. As the crowd was crammed, moving away took time. For many, it became almost impossible to get away from the gas. We advanced stomping in a grey fog that thickened. The majority, without a protective mask, started to suffocate. People coughed, cleared their throats, bent over. The ground was covered with sputum. Everyone was looking for a way out. As is now known, the protesters then found refuge behind a gate of Pitié-Salpêtrière. The video below shows the sequence (after verifying with the author, it was taken at 16:13, not 15:13 as is indicated).

“It was very good until then,” said the blogger Emma. “Suddenly, I saw people coming down Boulevard de l’Hôpital crying. A girl had blood on her head …” The amount of tear gas used struck the witnesses. A product that is not harmless, but whose massive use becomes commonplace, demonstration after demonstration [2]. “There was so much gas, we could not see anything,” recalled Benoît. “I could not even see the trees, which were not very far from me.”

Thousands of people trapped, without a way out

The water cannon also came into action, pushing people further down, towards the crossroads of Boulevard Saint-Marcel. Benoît, like other demonstrators, tried to get down this street, upstream of the event. But soon it also was blocked by the police. Clashes erupted in the rear, and thousands of people were then trapped, caught between three police blocks: two closing each side of the junction with Boulevard de l’Hôpital, making Boulevard Saint-Marcel a literal dead end; a third closing the trap behind the demonstration, still on Boulevard Saint-Marcel.

Then there was a wait of several tens of minutes. The tension mounted little by little, until the final “crushing” of the trap, at around 17:00. Despite the density of the crowd, the police, as it seemed to the packs of demonstrators, gradually tightened their grip by charging at Boulevard Saint-Marcel. On the other side, Boulevard de l’Hôpital, CRS and “voltigeurs” had already progressed to the crossroads, where they remained positioned, always closing access.

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Caption: in blue: the route of the event. In red: the part of the procession that was trapped until around 17:15. In black: barricades and pushes of the police (whose position has evolved over time). Click to enlarge.

Shortly before 5 pm, while the police were now very close, the protesters were getting closer and closer. The smiles that had taken over since the “gassing” at Pitié-Salpêtrière, were succeeded by anxiety, or an anguish that would grow crescendo.

In the trap, shortly before the last charge. In the background we see the white motorcycle helmets of “voltigeurs”, as well as other units

Soon afterwards, the police advanced one last time at the crowd. The protesters were then totally compressed against each other. Each one made efforts to go in the opposite direction … blocking themselves in. Tear gas sometimes fell directly on their heads, while grenades exploded continuously. They started to suffocate (again), they warned: “Stay in a bloc! Do not fall!” We held each other by the arm in order to not fall under the others, while behind, the police continued to push. On the right side of the road, the boards protecting a bank were torn up and burned, it seemed unwise to go there.

“A criminal trap at where Boulevard Saint-Marcel meets Boulevard de l’Hôpital, which lasted for 5 or 10 minutes, in a state of shock, suffocating, with GLI-F4 grenades, tear gas, I don’t know if you were there. The word solidarity had never seemed so concrete to me before. People reassured each other, protected each other.”

Panic in the halls of buildings, courtyards, and stairwells

On the other side of the street, the protesters were cornered, wedged between the wall and the crowd. “My trainee and I got too close to the wall,” said Laure on Twitter. “We couldn’t move and we took full pressure from the crowd trying to escape the blows of truncheons. Suddenly I felt and heard my ribcage crack. I screamed. I thought that I was going to die there, crushed by the crowd, because of this criminal police strategy”. Yoann described an identical situation: “We went into ‘survival instinct’ mode. A protester broke a door, we rushed inside. So everyone wanted to enter. We thought we were still going to be crushed, but inside. Fortunately, a lady opened the door of the stairwell.”

Along the boulevard, to escape the trap that was closing in on them, the protesters started to fill the halls, courtyards, and stairs of buildings. Emma entered into one too, in a neighbouring building: “Someone opened a door. In the building, people panicked, did not know whether to let in the others or not, for fear of being packed. People were vomiting, others were carrying fainting people …” It was the same thing for Laure, who describes the scene in a third building: “A compact crowd massed in the courtyard, the hall, and the floors. Compact and heterogeneous, except for children almost all age groups were present.”

“I had a hard time demonstrating, but never to such an extent. I thought they wanted to kill us”

Outside, finally, the charged ended. At least one man was on the ground, supported by firefighters. Everyone tried to catch their breath and spirits. Some of the protesters soon returned to Place d’Italie, once the trap opened. The first steps were heavy, we walk at first head down, in silence, supervised by the police. Until Yellow Vests gathered, little by little, and started to sing, slowly, then more and more strongly, in front of the police officers, who seem a little surprised: “We’re here, we’re here, even if Macron does not want it we are here …!”

The witnesses questioned were shocked. During the charge, “everyone was wondering what was going to happen,” recalled Yoann. “I found it totally disproportionate. There were some people who were throwing projectiles, but clearly no hordes of black-bloc …”. “With such a dense trap, with people who are not used to these situations, why use such violent and aggressive techniques?” said an indignant Benoît. “I’ve already had a hard time demonstrating,” admitted Emma. “But never to such an extent. I thought they wanted to kill us.”

Light-years away from this reality, the Ministry of the Interior, for its part, displayed its full satisfaction with the progress of the May 1st operations. “Our strategy paid off,” boasted a source at the police headquarters the next day in the newspaper Le Monde. “In particular, the fact of preventing the formation of groups of black-bloc by bumping into them as soon as they tried to form”. “We have been very mobile, very offensive, very impactful,” said another source, also in Le Monde. “This allowed us to avoid the scenario where hundreds of people try to join, to build up a mass of manoeuvre that is difficult to manage afterwards. At no time of the day did we lose the ascendancy.”

“Inhuman and degrading treatment”

The report drawn by the demonstrators is very different: “Everything was going well: it was quiet, familial, sunny. And then it degenerated towards death,” said Benoît. “I have never been so scared in a protest”. “In the end, it will dissuade people from coming to protest,” said Yoann. “We just wanted to avoid being gassed and shot. It was completely crazy: everyone wanted to escape what the police were doing!” “Of course, war is not like that,” said Emma. “But from what I knew, I felt it was war.”

A recent report by the Gironde Observatory of Civil Liberties (which includes the League of Human Rights, the “Syndicate des Avocats de France”, and Greenpeace), recently qualified the combined practice of the trap and tear gas grenades as an “Act of cruelty” constituting “at least inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”. The report, which denounces more generally a “policy of escalation of violence”, refers in particular to the practices of the prefect Michel Lallement. He has since been promoted to the head of the police headquarters of Paris, where he directed operations on May 1st.

“I’d been frightened at the rally before, but this is the first time I’ve ever thought that the entire rally, as a whole, was under attack.”

Omnipresent all over the procession, prepared for combat, were the police not warmed up by the authorities in the days leading up to the demonstration? Christophe Castaner had announced the onslaught of “1000 to 2000 radical militants” and “thousands of ultra-yellows”, where the black bloc of last year would have counted, according to the authorities, about 1200 people in all. It was therefore necessary to set up an ultra-offensive strategy, without fear of “coming into contact”. After the demonstration, “Le Point” evoked a rather different assessment, based on a note from the police headquarters, finally stating “a radical bloc of 800 people, including 200 ultra-leftists”.

Who did the plethoric number of 50 companies of CRS and squadrons of mobile gendarmes deployed this year (versus 27 last year), shouldered by Brigades of Repression of Violent Action (BRAV, who never seem to leave their motorcycle helmets), not counting the Anti-Crime Brigade and other security and intervention companies, fight against this 1st of May 2019? In all, according to the Ministry of the Interior, 7,400 gendarmes and police were mobilised, versus only 1,500 in 2018, in front of an imposing black bloc. Were the “black K-ways”, as they are nicknamed, certainly present in the clashes at the beginning of the event and in front of the police station of the 13th arrondissement, so active this year?

“The CGT procession was indeed targeted by law enforcement. Here are some charges and water cannon against them”

Everything happened on May 1st 2019 as if the police machine in place in Paris, pre-programmed to break through the surges of “black-blocs”, had finally come into action in an indistinct way, and to the measure of its power: massive, blind, and mechanic, not even having found enough discernment to spare the union corteges. In the end, and as illustrated by the episodes of la Pitié-Salpêtrière and the trap on Boulevard Saint-Marcel, it is the whole demonstration that ended up being literally dislocated – before a laborious arrival and ordered dispersal of Place d’Italie – under the effect of brutal and intrusive police manoeuvres.

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Thomas Clerget, Bastamag

[1] The demonstration in Paris gathered 28,000 people according to the Ministry of the Interior, and 80,000 according to CGT. A cabinet mandated by several media counted 40,000.

[2] Concerning the question of the toxicity of tear gas, see for example here or here.

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