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Showing Their Hand

France's failure to criminalize recent protests is revealing fault lines in the government's highest offices.

At first it was banned. Then it was authorized.

On Wednesday morning, following almost a week of uncertainty, Paris police commissioner Michel Cadot announced a ban on Thursday’s anti–El Khomri Law demonstration, which had been called by several French unions, including the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT).

A couple of hours later, facing a firestorm of criticism from both the Left and the Right, the government backtracked, met with union leaders from CGT and Force Ouvrière, and called off the ban.

But there would be conditions. Protesters would gather at the Place de la Bastille and follow a mile-long itinerary around the Bassin de l’Arsenal, ending back where they started.

Two thousand officers would police the demonstration: blocking off side streets, searching bags, and readying to throw tear gas, sting-ball grenades, and other niceties at crowds who have become accustomed to this level of police violence.

The massive police presence and controlled route were designed to incite autonomist segments within the protest, allowing authorities to further discredit and suppress the movement.

Media pundits and politicians across the political spectrum called this situation a “mess” (un cafouillage). Even Synergie, one of the largest French police unions, publicly criticized the government’s decision.

But this “mess” isn’t a one-time political miscalculation: it is yet another move in the Hollande government’s authoritarian turn. This time, however, it seems have backfired: Thursday’s protest was mostly peaceful.

Rather than escalating the long-standing tensions between protesters, it revealed that the French government has also split into opposing factions.

Emergencies

Many journalists and scholars promptly reminded their readers that the last time the government banned a union-backed demonstration was on February 8, 1962, in the midst of the Algerian war.

That day, police killed nine people at the Charonne metro station. Historian Alain Dewerpe has labeled it a “state massacre,” demonstrating that the Paris police commissioner ordered officers to resort to violence and to escalate if deemed necessary.

But one needn’t go back to the early sixties to find instances of government suppression. In July 2014, just a couple of months into his term, Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s government shut down several pro-Palestine demonstrations.

Although the public reaction was far less vehement than it was this week, the move indicated to many that the government was shifting rightward.

Then, on October 25, 2014, police killed a young environmentalist, Rémi Fraisse, during a protest against the Sivens dam project. Fraisse’s death marked the first time in decades that police murdered someone during demonstrations.

A little more than a year later, the government banned a giant climate change rally planned to coincide with the COP21 summit. It deployed “state of emergency” policies — established after the November 13 terrorist attacks — to stifle dissent and to criminalize social movements.

In the lead-up to what should have been a mass demonstration, dozens of environmental activists — radical and not — were put under house arrest for the duration of the summit, revealing a total disregard for basic civil liberties.

On November 29, thousands marched in defiance of the ban. The police arrested hundreds of protesters after beating, macing, and kettling them for hours in the Place de la République.

This March, following the government’s introduction of its now infamous “El Khomri Bill” — which “promotes a profound restructuring of worker-capital relations” — something like a social movement started.

Mass demonstrations, strikes, and occupations of public squares across France brought together unions, the youth movement, and — less comfortably — the autonomist groups of France’s far left.

Police repression has developed alongside the movement. Countless pictures, videos, and articles documenting police assaults on protesters and passers-by alike have been released. Many showed cops relentlessly macing peaceful demonstrators.

As a result, anti-police rhetoric — for long a defining characteristic of the autonomist groups — seeped into broader progressive segments. “Everyone hates the police” is now a familiar chant.

The short-lived ban on Thursday’s demonstration fits the divide-and-conquer strategy the government has deployed since March. By packing demonstrations with police in riot gear, it hopes to provoke the autonomists — who the mainstream media and the ruling classes inadequately call “casseurs” (“breakers”) — into attacking shop windows, ATMs, and other capitalist fetishes.

Thus, the people’s attention shifts from the labor law to these isolated instances of violence, which delegitimize the movement as a whole.

This is why some leftists worried that Thursday’s police presence would attract autonomist activists like blood does vampires: the expected confrontation would further discredit the movement and allow the government to engage in further repression.

A violent march on Thursday would have seriously jeopardized the next demonstration’s outcome, scheduled for June 28, the same day the Senate will vote on the El Khomri bill.

One should not underestimate the balance of forces here. The strikes have stopped, and it seems likely that the government is running down the clock in hopes that the movement will disperse over summer break.

Thursday’s protest did not erupt into the kind of violence that would have allowed Hollande and his cabinet to further erode civil liberties. But this relative peacefulness may indicate that the social movement is losing force.

And yet the “mess” is real, revealing cracks at the top of the state. Valls backed the ban, but Bernard Cazeneuve, the minister of the interior, opposed it. Hollande eventually tipped the balance toward the latter.

This certainly isn’t a pre-insurrectionary situation, as some segments of the autonomist movement claim. But it is a chaotic political situation.

The dissent in the cabinet is mirrored in the public: some on the Right lament the government’s “amateurism” and spinelessness, while others believe it reached a reasonable compromise.

Some in the Socialist Party (PS) criticize the denial of civil liberties, while others feel that authorizing the demonstration in a “secured perimeter” was a smart move.

No one knows what will happen moving forward. But this week confirmed that the French government is a mess — and it’s high time we clean it up.