Photo: Jonathan Bucks
Police officers watch the protesters carefully. Photo: Jonathan Bucks

Unless you’ve been habiter sous un rock, you’ll be aware that, in step with French economic fortunes, as each days passes President Francois Hollande’s political stock plumbs new depths. His approval rating has remained stubbornly at 22 per cent, virulent posters calling for his resignation adorn Paris’ metro stations, and graffiti daubs the city walls with a vocabulary redolent of that used in the protests of May 1968, spelling out the country’s collective plight. Yet all that pales in comparison to the overriding issue at hand: Monsieur le Président is single.

That’s right: the embattled president sought last week to draw a line under one of the most embarrassing episodes he has faced after the magazine Closer revealed details of his affair and nocturnal escapades to visit actress Julie Gayet. After the carnivalesque atmosphere that abounded in the days and weeks following the allegations, the end of the relationship between Hollande and erstwhile premiere dame Valérie Trierweiler came as more of a whimper than a bang.

[pullquote]My eyes began to stream, red and green light from the flares blinded and confused me, and the smoggy air left me choking for breath, while all around an ecstasy of screaming and violence seized the square[/pullquote]

“I wish to make it known that I have ended the life together that I shared with Valérie Trierweiler,” he told Sylvie Maligorne, an AFP journalist and long-term acquaintance. The statement confirmed what had long been suspected ever since Hollande’s three-wheeled tryst came to light. So headline-grabbing has the affair been that Hollande’s annual press conference on the state of the economy – in which he announced a volte face in the government’s approach – was overshadowed by his indiscretions.

But if salacious gossip can thrust Hollande’s personal life into the spotlight for a few days, the impact of France’s crippling unemployment figures will endure for decades. December was another record breaking month as unemployment soared, forcing Hollande to concede failure in his attempt to curb the trend. 3.3 million people are now without work, about 11 per cent; an increase of more than 10,000 in the last month of 2013. In stark contrast, the UK, which boasts a similar population, saw unemployment fall to 7.1 per cent.

Despite being the second biggest economy in the Eurozone, there is a real feverish sense that France’s influence is rapidly waning. A declining industry coupled with recent reports that London had dethroned Paris in terms of tourism, an injury to which has been added the insult and dismal realisation that Hollande’s presidency is still very young, has left many simply fed up. Classmates and French friends abhor Hollande’s France. Some have startled me with their support, albeit hesitant, for Marine Le Pen, the poster girl and acceptable face of the far right in France. Others simply shake their head, their shoulders rising up and down in that most Gallic of fashions with insouciance or perhaps merely apathy. Others, however, have taken to the streets. Last weekend, I decided to join them.

Jour de Colère on 26 January, which roughly translates as ‘Day of anger’, saw a feverish crowd of French protestors march from Place de la Bastille to Place Vauban in the trendy seventh arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower. I joined the crowd at Place Vauban, where a stage had been constructed. Speakers surrounded the square causing the sound to echo and reverberate, creating what I can only describe as a coliseum-like atmosphere.

As a spectacle, it was something to behold, a veritable melting pot of different generations and different grievances, many traditionally opposed to one another yet all united against the current government. Children sat atop their parents’ shoulders, tricolores emblazoned on their rosy cheeks, too young to understand why or against what they were protesting.

[pullquote]My first proper ‘manif’ was certainly a baptism of fire. My sore, red eyes will attest to that[/pullquote]

When I questioned one protestor, Helene, a mother of five, as to whether her children understood their presence at the march, she fixed me with a furtive stare and declaimed that they’ll understand in the future when they too are unemployed and living below the breadline.

A kindly looking woman, wizened and grey with a toothy grin and an appearance that seemed more suited to a parish church, excitedly brandished a placard that read: “Euthanasions la racaille” (“Let’s euthanize the scum”).

Anti-Christian protestors bellowed out the Marsaillaise in perfect harmony with anti-gay marriage demonstrators. Gruffly menacing men, faces concealed by scarves, stared blankly when I asked why they had come. Several looked me up and down before gesturing the quenelle, seen by many as an inverted Nazi salute inspired by French comedian Dieudonné. When I alluded to the anti-semitic overtones that are associated with the gesture, one told me that it was about freedom of expression. “Everyone can make jokes about black people, why can’t we make jokes about the Jews?” he said.

While one man carried a carefully constructed effigy of a guillotine in his backpack, another seemed unsure as to why he had come, blurting something unintelligible about the system.

From the stage, speakers whipped the baying crowd into a frenzy with fervent chants of “Hollande démissionne” (“Hollande get out”) and repeated renditions of the national anthem. The mention of Julie Gayet’s name elicited boos and whistles. One bearded man, almost contorted by his choler, spat out the word “pute” (“whore”) every time her name was uttered. As rain began to pour and darkness closed in, many lit flares that saw smoke billow around the square. So sanguinary was the mood that I too began to feel my blood boil, my heart pound, and with the falling rain and each bellowing reverberation of the crowd’s cry, I was overcome by a strange hybrid of fervour and disgust.

At 6 pm, when the protest was meant to end, many dispersed. But many remained, too, quickly extracting gas masks from bags and pockets or covering their eyes with scarves. Here I had missed a trick. In an instant, French riot police swooped in, letting off tear gas, brandishing batons and rounding up over-zealous demonstrators. My eyes began to stream, red and green light from the flares blinded and confused me, and the smoggy air left me choking for breath, while all around an ecstasy of screaming and violence seized the square.

My first proper ‘manif’ was certainly a baptism of fire. My sore, red eyes will attest to that. I went in as a sceptic, hoping to dip my toe in the protesting culture for which the French are renowned. It would be churlish to deny that I didn’t find myself swept up in the mood of the demonstration and that I didn’t feel some kind of choler course through my veins. It was a Jour de Colere, and I most definitely got angry.

Check out a video of the protest here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhds9emZykQ.

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