With riots and protests in France bombarding the headlines, Postcards from Abroad columnist Matt Gregg is forced from his studies to return to our apparently docile shoresIt’s the day after the night before. Rue de la République has been completely transformed. Every bus shelter has been kicked in, every bin liquefied into a pool of orange plastic and every street corner guarded by fully armed gendarmes.
Welcome to Lyon, France’s second largest metropolis.
We’ve just hit our eighth straight day of grève réconductible – basically the French unions way of saying they’ll be striking indefinitely. The main source of their ire is the controversial pension reform bill, which would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67.
The French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, insists the reforms are essential to French prosperity but the population at large clearly disagrees. Large parts of the country have been brought to a standstill, as protesters demand the reforms be dropped. Nowhere have these protests been more vehement than in Lyon.
Not surprisingly my university sent me an email saying all lectures had been suspended indefinitely. A second email swiftly followed, warning all foreign students to avoid heading into town because French demonstrations have a habit of getting out of hand. Naturally, I felt duty-bound to conduct my own field studies and report from the frontline at Place Bellecour.
Most public transport is not running and all the main stations have been shut down so the 15-minute journey from the top of Fourvière has to be made on foot. In hindsight, it’s just as well we walked. Other students ended up getting stuck on the underground for over an hour while protesters clashed with riot police and one friend even got punched in the melee.
Place Bellecour, located between the Saone and the Rhone, forms the focus point of Lyon and much of the demonstrations – the largest pedestrian square in Europe, the area is distinguished by a 25-foot statue of Louis XIV. Today, hundreds of demonstrators swarm around the statue’s base and across the normally vast open space.
The yellow flags of Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s largest trade union, float high in the cold autumn air and the customary blare of megaphones can be heard over the din of the steel drumming group keeping the protesters entertained. Littered amongst the crowd of varying ages and ethnicities are kebab stands, feeding the hungry masses.
Were it not for the almost random stoning of the luxurious shop fronts that enclose the square or the riot clad gendarmes keeping watch, it would be hard to distinguish this gathering from the music festival of la Lumière that Bellecour played host to just two weeks ago. It hardly seemed like the warzone the email had made out.
Circling overhead is a helicopter. From a distance, it’s hard to make out if it’s to keep the rioters in check or merely a TV station coming in for a closer look. It hovers above us, surveying the crowd, the Parachute Insignia of France’s National Guard now crystal clear along the fuselage.
Loud chanting and the steady beat of a drum attracted my attention to the large column of protesters filing into the square from the north-east corner. Easing our way towards the growing crowd, which we can now see stretches out of Bellecour and back across the Rhone, it’s hard not to be impressed by the French determination not to work those extra two years.
Of course, the influx of people into the already packed square was always going to significantly increase the tension, but I was not prepared for what happened next. There was a scuffle as protesters pressed themselves against the on looking gendarmerie and it all kicked off. The helicopter swooped down on the roof of the McDonalds and gas canisters spiralled from the sky, engulfing the square in a thick cloud of smoke.
Chaos ensued. The gas leaves you choking for breath, your eyes streaming and your nostrils burning. Everywhere you looked, people were desperately trying to cover their faces with anything they had or fleeing the scene. Wisely, we swiftly followed suit.
Down every street we ran, we were met by riot police, who were linked together to form a sort of 21st century Roman Tortoise. The oncoming walls of shields forced everyone back towards the square, back towards the gas. In the end, we had to double back.
That was the 19th of October. For two weeks, protests and strikes have dominated French life. The French senate have now voted through the bill and it seems only a matter of weeks before things calm down. But it will take a lot longer to clear up the mess and repair the damage.