Artillery Row

Arise le pompier

Vladislav Davidzon watches French firefighters set themselves alight

On Tuesday, something totally and shockingly new transpired in French politics. The French Pompiers, the state’s professional firefighters (many French firefighters are volunteers or else are associated with the military) joined the fray to demonstrate against planned Pension cuts. Some of the Pompiers arrived at the march with their faces daubed with sneering Joker or Harlequin war paint. Others carried drums, with brass bugles strapped to their waists. They came steaming in from the side streets, and in tight groups out of the metro, singing songs and cheering. It became obvious that they had brought enough fireworks and projectiles, had they desired, to burn down half of the Marais and the buildings surrounding the Canal St. Martain to the square’s north. Some of the firefighters exchanged jocular pleasantries with the tense police officers at first. Comradley relations would not last into the afternoon.

A sizable red flag emblazoned with the hammer and sickle was raised over Republique square as the firefighters climbed over the statue of Marianne, illuminating her with ochre hued flares. Surrealy, a pair of striking firefighters kitted out in their gleaming golden caskets were set alight by their comrades. Thus ablaze, the firefighters turned majestically with balletic grace and lay down in unison to be doused. It was as if they desired to physically taunt the authorities: we daily throw our bodies in front of the inferno and so who are you deny us our meager pension?

Next, the Firefighters arranged themselves into tight formation and with firecrackers bursting all around them, began to march to Nation. A detachment had tried to occupy half of the Paris ring road, attempting to block traffic at the Porte de Vincennes. Upon attempting to veer off the proscribed demonstration route, they were confronted by the riot police. Watching the phalanxes of French riot police and gendarmes form lines to fling themselves against the rowdy firefighters, and to be beaten back by them was spectacular. This was what the Paris Commune and 1848 must have felt like.

The opposition has achieved the Holy Grail known to paleo-Marxists as ‘La convergence des luttes’

The opposition to the French government’s pension reform has dragged out for several months now, and neither side looks ready to lay down its arms. Indeed, the Macron government’s response to the strikes has been strikingly unsentimental, according to his critics likely constituting the most brutal response since May 1968. Certainly, much worse than the one in the mid 1990s. In recent months, footage of French riot police beating French citizens partaking of their constitutional right to assemble and protest had become a rather placid event at various demonstrations. Much of this evidence demonstrates what is indisputably disproportionate usage of force by government forces against protestors, though many have been violent. A plurality of French citizens support the strikes, but the riot police have continued to use tear gas and baton protestors indiscriminately.

Living in the center of Paris over the previous months, one would become accustomed to the daily manifestations of political disorder. The Gillet Jaunes had long since expended their fair allotment of efferently, charm and social trust and had degenerated into a social nuisance. The numbers that they could count on mustering on any given weekend fell in tandem with the population’s attrition in support for the escalation of their shenanigans. The symbolic threat that they had posed to the French state on first appearing and mobilizing seemed to have largely dissipated before the commencement of the labor unrest. That was before they had struck an alliance of mutual convenience with the unions. 

In the words of my friend, the indefatigable French journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, upon observing the previous round of demonstrations and militant street rallies in Paris: “The newly revived opposition has achieved the Holy Grail known to paleo-Marxists as La convergence des luttes (convergence of the struggles). Sixty per cent of the French support the national strike. The gilets jaunes, often given to conspiracy theories and to voting for Marine Le Pen, confabbed with CGT union organizers in advance of [nationwide] marches”.

When I first observed the firefighters massing at the Republique square early in the day, it was obvious that this was not the run of the mill protest. Not the sort of thing that we denizens of Paris had become used to over the previous months. The Pompiers were on the warpath and the whole spectacle was in fact, utterly, unambiguously glorious and a testament to a primordial anarchic martial spirit. Any proponent of theories of European decadence would have to pause at this spectacle, worthy of Guy Debord himself. It was not until observing the melee at that moment that I began to understand the reasons why the French had won all those wars for over half a millennium. Yet, the kinetic and aesthetic pleasures and surrealism of this tremendous spectacle aside, French gendarmes firing tear gas at French firefighters and charging them with riot shields certainly does not augur well for the cohesion of the French state. 

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