Bastille Square: a new era for civil disobedience à la française

    The year 2011 of the “Spring of the Peoples” has already made history in so many ways that it will probably become an essential benchmark in future textbooks—maybe as much as the year 1789, exactly 222 years ago. Here in Paris, I found myself revisiting the classics on the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille—the first massive expression of people power in modern history, a tipping point that changed the face of the world.

    Walking on the cobblestones of Place de la Bastille, this ancestor to Tahrir Square, I couldn’t not feel a little bit like the melancholic hero of “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s latest comedy. If by magic, a time traveling carriage were to go by, I certainly would not resist jumping in it to have a glimpse at Mirabeau, Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre and the others—probably to try to convince them to maintain a strict nonviolent discipline among the people of Paris. Quite an anachronistic dream indeed!

    But my reverie is short lived as I am thrust back into present time by the songs and slogans of today’s disobedient citizens of the City of Lights.
    It is not uncommon to see demonstrations in La Bastille, the historical rallying point of all expressions of social and political discontent in France. But yesterday the two groups that joyously and noisily took the stage represent quite a new phenomenon in the world of civil disobedience à la française.

    On one side, facing the façade of the Opera Bastille and spread on its giant staircase, were “les indignés.” On the other, in rue de la Roquette, were the French activists of the “Mission Bienvenue Palestine,” who were supposed to spend the week July 8-16 in the West Bank visiting various cultural and humanitarian Palestinian organizations, but instead have spent those last few days either in the Israeli jails (from which they were just released on Tuesday and Wednesday) or demonstrating in various key spots in Paris (from Charles de Gaulle airport, which they were not allowed to leave, to the Eiffel Tower). Both of these groups are comprised of people who, less than a year ago, were not engaged in any kind of activism. In the last few months, a new form of globally and locally engaged citizenry was born on the land of liberté égalité and fraternité.

    The profile of les indignés, like their Spanish counterparts, is largely made of young people, who are increasingly seeing themselves as a lost generation, a “precarious generation”—the name adopted by one of the leading groups in the movement (Génération Précaire). Those young people are unemployed for the most part, without any real perspective of ever finding a solid job—bouncing from short term internship to short term internship. In the best case scenario they are paid at the level of half the minimum wage—making them youth trapped in an endless roundabout of frustrating job hunting experiences, locked in a no exit, no future depressing scenario. Outside the framework of political parties, these young people came together to express, beyond their anger at not finding jobs or housing, a much bigger agenda, fueled by an idealist vision of the world, where the values of justice and solidarity are high priorities.

    A few months ago, a movement was formed which they called “les indignés”—the outraged, in reference to the short pamphlet published in December 2010 by Stephane Hessel that became an instant bestseller in France: “Indignez-vous!” or time for outrage.  Ninety-three-year-old life-long human rights activist Stephane Hessel, who was a resistant against the Nazis and a redactor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has indeed inspired thousands of young people who could be his great grand children.

    Hessel, and other veterans of the Resistance, called on the younger generations:

    We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry! Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy… We must realize that violence turns its back on hope. We have to choose hope over violence—choose the hope of nonviolence. That is the path we must learn to follow. The oppressors no less than the oppressed have to negotiate to remove the oppression: that is what will eliminate terrorist violence. That is why we cannot let too much hate accumulate… To you who will create the twenty-first century, we say, from the bottom of our hearts, TO CREATE IS TO RESIST. TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.

    And one of Hessel’s major reasons to be outraged is the condition of the Palestinians.

    On Place de la Bastille yesterday, stood hundreds of that other kind of French “indignés,” making their voices heard, wearing green T-shirts that read “Free Palestine,” chanting a famous French tune “On ira tous en Palestine, on ira” (we will all go to Palestine, we will go). But 342 of them were not allowed to go. They were told by the airline companies that they had been tagged by Israel as dangerously undesirable, all nearing the highest levels of “dangerosité”—nothing short of being treated as potential terrorists. A total of 342 people, a third of them being retired seniors, 6 of them being minors (the youngest is 9 years old, little Melia, a fourth grader).

    Most of these people had never gone to Palestine before and their sympathy toward the Palestinians had mostly been expressed through relatively easy forms of activism—signing petitions, attending a play or a film about Palestine or maybe pledging not to buy products from Israeli settlements. What most of them did not expect in booking their first roundtrip to Palestine, was that they would receive serious hardcore training in nonviolent strategic action.

    While demonstrating at the airport in order to get reimbursed by the airline companies—which, at first, rejected any responsibility—they were cordoned by the French security forces (CRS). When their chants of “laissez passer les pacifistes” (let the pacifists go through) became too loud, they were stormed by the police and tear gassed. Why bother to experience the bitter acrid taste of oppression in Bil’in, Nil’in, Al Masara or Nabih Saleh, when you can be served at home by your own police force? The activists were shocked and outraged by the fact that the blockade of the West Bank seemed to have been outsourced by Israel to the French authorities, who were willingly accepting the task in the same manner as the Greeks accepted Israel’s bid with the Gaza flotilla.

    After days of protest throughout Paris, being chased from the Eiffel Tower, from the Champs Elysées, from the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and taken to the police department multiple times, the once novice activists had been turned into seasoned veterans. But their experience was nothing compared to what their friends who had been able to slip through the net and fly to Tel Aviv experienced.

    It seems that the Israeli government needed to justify the impressive police and military mobilization at Ben Gurion airport. So they had to let some of the people take their plane in order to arrive and be arrested. About 150 of them were indeed taken to jail—people of all ages, from 20 to 83—and held for up to five days.

    At a meeting that followed the demonstrations in La Bastille, I listened to the testimonies of a dozen of those prisoners. From the lively middle aged Fanny from Marseille, speaking in her colourful accent (which makes all French people smile, as the Marseillais are reknown for their joie de vivre and frankness of speech) to the timid young woman from a suburb of Paris, wearing a Muslim veil, all of these people in their wide diversity expressed with a moving eloquence how they had learned through this ordeal to master their fear.

    Among their required readings before going to Palestine, was a French translation of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in which they learned that “the true place for a just man is also in prison.” And indeed, their few days in the Israeli jails taught them some invaluable skills in nonviolent civil resistance. First of all, the solidarity among them made them strong. They learned how to observe their jailer, and they learned how they can always rely on humour to release tension and disarm any opponent. All of them described how they had a great time laughing at the disorganization of the Israeli police and military, who were shouting orders and counter orders, contradicting one another, and obviously not prepared to deal with these westerners who only wanted “to go to Bethlehem.”

    Most of them were decently treated except some of the young French men of Arab descent who were brutalized and harassed much more than the others. But as one of them was said: “Don’t be afraid of Israel, really, they want to make you believe that they are so powerful but when you look at them… their soldiers, they are just 17-year-old kids who have been brainwashed.” To which an older French lady replied: “Indeed, the young women who were guarding us, I felt so sorry for them… The only thing they could say was ‘all the world is against us. Everybody hates us.'”

    In those few days spent in the Israeli jails, the activists were able to get a first-hand experience of the deep psychosis that lays beneath the whole Israeli fortress of fear and oppression. They were able to identify the Achilles heel of a system that, as they justly remarked, is “full of cracks” and “would only need a little more push to implode.” Indeed, their actions have contributed a lot to crack the walls of the edifice. All the lawsuits that are pending will make them even larger.

    As they were thanking their Israeli lawyer who had successfully defended them and obtained from the Israeli judge an order that condemned their arrest as illegal, he told them: “It is I who thanks you for having had the courage to come. We were powerless before—when Palestinians were in the same situation, we had no recourse. The jurisprudence you created will be immensely helpful for us all.”

    And after much applause and congratulations, and much laughter and good food and wine to celebrate being all together again back home, they all went on to celebrate Bastille Day as it should—all convinced that they had done more during these last few days for liberté, égalité and fraternité than in a whole lifetime. And they all promised each other that they would soon be ready to try to go to Palestine, with even more people than the first time.

    By then, it was past midnight in Paris…

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