Long Live the Revolution
This is probably not the best moment to be visiting Paris.
After a three hour drive from my village to Bordeaux, the idea was that we hop on the high-speed TGV which would then catapult us to the capital city in just a couple of hours. At the moment, however, France is in the throes of one of its many strikes that the French population accepts with incredible nonchalance.
On the walk from the city to the station, where we had reservations on the high-speed train, we found ourselves confronted with a wall of riot police wearing body armour and carrying shields.
Beyond them were a large crowd of protesters, union officials and members of the yellow vest movement. This crowd were loudly voicing their objections to changes that the government want to make to the forty-two different pension systems that currently exist in this country. Somewhere beyond that, lay the station which I was attempting to reach.
Unless you have lived in this country, it is difficult to comprehend the almost casual relationship that the French has towards protests and strikes. Even after nearly twenty years here it still never fails to amaze me when I see drum-beating, flag-waving protesters grappling with police on one side of the street while people go about their shopping on the other. Apparently, unless a guillotine has been erected, protests and minor riots do not warrant much attention.
Both the National Police and the Gendarmeries have large riot squads that get bussed up and down the country to wherever they are most needed. Last year the yellow vest protests turned nasty but most organizers agreed that this was just a fringe element and that the rioting was not in keeping with the general spirit of the movement. It would seem that holding a protest is a bit like having an open house party and you are never quite sure who will turn up or how they will behave.
Unsure of quite how to now get to the station, I approached a policewoman who was extremely helpful. She told me to just squeeze through the police barrier then walk through the protesters toward the cloud of tear gas that was lingering in the air and that behind that I would find my destination.
With my highly developed instinct for survival, I wondered if that wasn’t perhaps a little foolhardy and asked if going another route might not be a wiser move. She gave a disapproving shake of her head and assured me that any change in course would take much longer and that by the time I reached the tear gas it would mostly have dissipated anyway.
I have to say that the young officer was absolutely correct and we reached our destination with no incident and without having been harassed by either of the confronting tribes. Once there, however, it was not long before an announcement was made that the main gates to the station were to be closed to deny access to the protesters. The station doors were slammed shut and security teams lined up behind them ready to repel any attempts at forced entry. Anyone wishing to leave the station was advised to use a small side gate.
It occurred to me that if passengers wishing to leave the station could exit through this side gate, it would be equally possible for the protesters to reverse the process and enter through the same gate.
Going around the corner to test my theory, I was soon joined by a dozen or so journalists carrying gas masks and wearing helmets. Within minutes two or three yellow-vested protesters jumped the fence and then a wave of them breached the gate and poured onto the platform where my superfast train now lay idle along with several others.
What was interesting was that you had protesters banging drums and blowing whistles moving in one direction and passengers wheeling suitcases and dragging bags in the other and yet they never clashed. There was one brief instant when a screaming protester with a Mohican hair cut and tattooed head bumped an elderly granny wheeling her case along the platform in the opposite direction. The incident clearly disturbed him and he apologized profusely and then shouted at those behind him to make room for the elderly commuter. A pathway opened through the crowd and once she had passed the protesters leapt onto the rails, threw a few thunder flashes, beat their drums and chanted their fury.
Those of us waiting to shoot through to Paris quietly sat back and forty minutes later the protesters either ran out of steam or decided that they had achieved their objective and simply left. We then boarded our train and continued our journey as though this was the most natural thing in the world. Here in France, it often is.