According to North American media, France is a dangerous place where unruly communists, anarchists and other terrifying—ists are constantly taking the streets—the same gang who stormed the Bastille, basically.
French do protest but I think it’s a healthy expression of democracy. It’s a right in many countries and a right worth fighting for in many others. And it’s not just the leftists who take the streets. There are plenty of protests I wouldn’t join and plenty of times where I’m with the counter-protest but either way, I’d rather see people marching and singing in the streets than yet another mass shooting or online conspiracy theories spread online by bitter citizens.
And contrary to popular belief, protests follow informal rules. It’s not just an angry mob happy to clash with, well, pretty much anyone on the way.
So here are a few tips if you want to join a protest… or if you want to avoid one coming your way.
Are French protesters violent?
Yes and no.
Most protesters are protesting peacefully. Basically, they gather, then march together following a specific route, and that’s about it.
Mob violence—verbal or physical—occasionally happens at specific stops along the way, for instance, a police station or government buildings. It’s usually limited to spraying graffiti, smashing a few windows or setting a barricade on fire.
Some people join protests just for the sake of fighting with the police or breaking stuff. They usually stick to the end of the march. If you disagree with the approach, well, they are easy enough to avoid—don’t hang out with protesters wearing black hats, face coverings and ski masks.
There’s no violence between protesters.
How about police violence?
You should be more concerned about police violence than the “angry mob.”
I took part in many, many protests “back in my days,” in the 1990s and early 2000s, and I can’t remember being tear-gassed, like ever. Taunting the police was part of the game and they would eventually block a few streets to stop the protest but that was it.
Nowadays, protesters in France are facing an increasingly militarized response with riot cops using tear gas, sting-ball grenades and mass arrest tactics. Many protesters have been harmed over the past few years and the excessive use of force is now the norm.
Useful protest vocabulary
Les CRS (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité) : the French riot police. Fun fact, battalions are dispatched all over France—for instance, CRS from Lyon are sent to Nantes for a protest—so most of the time, they don’t know the city they are “protecting,” they’re only there for a few hours. The CRS typically block streets or protesters (it’s called a “cordon de CRS”). They are the ones using tear gas and rubber bullets.
Une nasse: “kettling” or “containing.” It’s a police tactic to “catch” protesters. Streets are blocked off and eventually, everyone in the area is arrested. It’s common enough for bystanders to be arrested as well (French police arrested foreign high-school kids a few weeks ago…!).
Lacrymos: tear gas
“Ça charge!”: if you hear that, start running. It’s meaning the CRS are running towards the protesters.
ACAB: back in my day, we used to chant “CRS=SS,” a not-so-subtle reference to the Nazi’s protection squad. I keep on hearing “ACAB” (“All cops are bastards”) these days.
CGT, CFDT, CFTC, FO: a few of the main trade unions.
GAV: “garde à vue,” temporary detention or police custody.
Useful protest gear
The jury is still out on the best way to deal with tear gas. Rinsing your eyes with water usually makes it worse. A saline solution can help. some kind of face covering dipping in lemon juice helps neutralize the chemicals. Oh, remember your COVID mask? It can come in handy.
Most experienced protesters—or anyone who really wants to get up close and personal with riot police—usually wear a proper gas mask.
You may want to protect your eyes, especially from rubber bullets. Googles are the preferred option.
Note that it’s not recommended to carry a backpack—law enforcement will stop you and search you, assuming you’re one of these bad boys or bad girls breaking stuff.
What does tear gas feel like?
From afar, it stings the eyes and it can make you sneeze—no big deal.
Up close, it’s very uncomfortable. I mean, that’s what it’s designed for… it feels like you’re choking and you can’t see anything. It makes you cry and your entire face is burning.
The key is to get out. Don’t panic, it doesn’t last.
Last week, I got stuck right in the middle of it and it took me a good ten minutes to feel okay. My mum found it hilarious—she’s been there many times…!
Help, I’m not protesting and I’m scared because the crowd is coming my way!
Don’t worry, protesters won’t force you to join them.
Most protests are not spontaneous, they have to be scheduled and the route is planned, so they are easy enough to avoid. Last Friday, the gathering was planned but the march was “unauthorized”—still, you kind of see the crowd coming, protesters aren’t exactly running…
If you’re stuck in a protest, you can always ask the riot police if you can get through their cordon or where you should go. It’s pointless to talk to CRS busy firing tear gas or rubber bullets, but “quieter” cordons are usually understandable enough. Some CRS are complete assholes but quite a few are as scared as you may be—which isn’t exactly comforting, I know—and they can tell you which streets are “safe.”
Worst-case scenario, hang out around the union trucks. Union people are usually nice, experienced protesters and they avoid violence.
And remember that protests are an invaluable way to get your voice heard!