Sarko, facho, le peuple aura ta peau! Sarko, facho, le people aura ta peau! Sarko, facho, le peuple aura ta peau!
(Sarko, fascist, the people will have your skin!)
On May 17th Nicolas Sarkozy’s five-year term as the president of the Republic will begin – and nearly half the population is not at all happy about it. Anarchists have taken over place de la Bastille. People are threatening to leave France. Effigies of Sarkozy are being burned in the streets. The other half though, is quite thrilled. People are dancing and celebrating on the Champs Elysées and at place de la Concorde, wearing UMP shirts and toasting Sarkozy.
According to my vie politique teacher, when there’s a substantial victory for the right-wing the celebration goes down at place (pronounced plah-suh) de la Concorde – which is exactly what’s happening right now. If I didn’t have a dissertation due by 8h tomorrow morning I’d be out there myself taking more pictures. As for the left, celebrations tend to take place at place de la Bastille. In 2002 when the extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen made it onto the second round, people wandered purposelessly to the Bastille – with no plan or idea of what to do except to gather there in protest and solidarity. The place de la Bastille has been a gathering place for manifestations and revolutions since the actual prison was stormed in 1789, so it follows that it would be a hub of leftist political activity.
Although leftist candidate Ségolène Royal had been holding her own throughout the election, Sarkozy has been the favorite from the beginning and Rachael and I have been predicting a UMP victory for weeks. Since the first round of elections two weeks ago there have been rumblings about the possibility of violent protests if Sarkozy were to be elected – especially in the infamous Parisian banlieue Clichy-sous-Bois. Figuring that manifestations would be far more interesting to watch than right-wing celebrations, we decided to hoof it over to Bastille to see the results.
Walking toward Bastille it was impossible not to notice the buses filled with French riot police lining the main roads that radiate out from the circular place and the TV vans and journalists wandering all around – clearly we weren’t the only ones expecting something interesting to go down tonight.
At 19h20 we squeezed onto barstools in Kilty’s Irish Pub where rue de la Roquette joins the chaotic traffic circle at Bastille and turned our eyes to the TV in the corner of the bar to watch the countdown. At T-10 minutes the streets started to empty as people squeezed into any bar or restaurant with a TV. The channel in Kilty’s was a little slower than the one on in the bar next door and at 20h we started to hear screaming without any clue who the screaming was for. A few frantic people bolted next door, but after about 30 seconds our TV caught up and we knew that Sarkozy had won.
We could hear screams of anger coming from all directions but for about 20 minutes after the results were announced, nothing happened. People began slowly filing out of the bars and gathering on a patch of sidewalk usually reserved for the Saturday-night break dancers. As the crowd grew a few guys climbed to the top of phone booths and began chanting, Sarko, facho, le people aura ta peau.
The chanting crowd began to walk straight into the swirling traffic and groups of people sat down in the middle of the road, forcing all traffic to a halt. Immediately the riot police were on the job, blocking off all entrance points to Bastille and directing the cars and buses Southeast toward Gare de Lyon. The thing that’s important to remember about France is that manifestations (protests) are a fundamental right. The police are bussed in with shin guards and riot shields and seem to function more as protectors of the protesters than as keepers of the peace. This is perhaps why nobody did anything when protesters began to graffiti the column.
Once the first two men had breached the spiked fence surrounding the monument, things just continued on toward anarchy. A Sarkozy mannequin appeared in the crowd and he was first kicked and beaten on the ground before being burned in effigy and carried on a stick through the crowd. The column was soon covered in anti-Sarko graffiti likening him to Le Pen and Hitler and piles of trash were burning as miniature bonfires throughout the crowds.
When I climbed onto the fence surrounding the column in the center to get a few pictures of the flare-wielding group that had made it onto the first level of the monument I came face-to-face with a girl about my age who was a member of an anarchist group. She asked me if I understood what was going on, and I mostly did, but I did need to ask what people were chanting after “Sarko, facho.” She asked who I would have voted for and I assured her that I was forcement against Sarko – though it was kind of a useless question to ask in the middle of a mob screaming about skinning the poor guy alive. Even if I’d been the biggest Sarkozy fan ever to come out of Sciences Po, there is no chance I’d ever admit that to a pro-Ségo anarchist. She told me it was chouette (kind, neat, cool) that I’d come out to manifest with them – and again, it would have been suicidal to admit that I was just there for a little entertainment and a few good pictures.
After observing the scene for a while together from our perch on the fence, I bid her a bonne soirée and made my way toward the metro – I do have homework to finish after all. As I left the fray things were nowhere near winding down – with drum circles, trash-fueled bonfires and no traffic to bother with whatsoever it was starting to look like quite a party.
The big question is why protest something you can’t change? And certainly, even anarchists understand that no amount of manifestation can undo the democratic process of electing a new president. They know they can’t change anything, but want Sarkozy to hear their message – that he and his alienating policies are not wanted or welcome by a large chunk of the population. I get that, I totally do – they’re sending a message. But I think it’s a message that could be sent just as easily without clobbering and burning inanimate Sarkozy look-alikes or threatening that people will skin him alive. Even the riot police were chuckling when the protesters started comparing Sarokozy to Adolf Hitler (for one thing, his family is Jewish) – this was manifestation to the point of just looking ridiculous.