Saturday, December 4: The phone rings as I am going outside and my husband signals me furiously with the hand that isn’t on the phone. “Be careful”, he mouthed. His friend on the other end of the line had called to see how we were because he had just watched “casseurs” (thugs) running down our shopping street in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Cars were burning and windows were shattered as the thugs, who were following those in a “peaceful” demonstration, ran wild.
Same old, same old. Generally the demonstration routes are fairly much the same, going from Bastille to the Republic or vice versa. But for whatever reason, yesterday they started at the Porte des Lilas in northeast Paris and ended at the Place de la Republique, hence their presence in our neighbourhood.
Even though I had been warned not to go anywhere near the crime scene, I was bent on doing my grocery shopping, reasoning that the protesters had already left the area. So I crossed the Place Gambetta where the first sign of something awry was the closed and shuttered pharmacy which is open until 7:30 p.m. It was 5:30. As I neared the rue des Pyrenees where all my food stores are located – the butcher, the baker, the fishmonger, the greengrocers – I saw dozens of police vans and hundreds of police, both on foot and on motorcycles. The damage that had been done was higher up the street but they had clustered further down as they awaited orders.
So imagine the scene: people like me going about their Saturday night shopping, picking out their oranges and bananas and apples and every once in a while glancing at the street where cops were revving up their motorcycles and there was a little more excitement in the air than usual. There was no way any of us could get beyond the police barriers to see what was happening further up the street so I gave up and went back home
The next morning Philippe and I walked all the way up the Avenue Gambetta to see what had happened. We saw the broken windows of shops and banks, mostly banks because the thugs hate capitalists, and burned and charred cars and boarded up stores. It was a shocking sight and people were everywhere taking pictures.
Philippe got in a conversation, if you want to call it that, with a man who was defending the strikers and blaming the government on assigning them this particular route where, he said, they KNEW the streets were narrow. Very proud of himself, he gave a little dissertation on how superior the CGT (Communist-led union) was about organising strikes and how the whole mess we were seeing was the fault of… the government! Philippe actually asked the fellow if he was saying that it was the fault of the government and he answered “yes”. Not only that, he said, cops dressed as strikers were mixed in with the demonstrators to stir things up.
Just as he was explaining how wonderful the CGT was and the great job they had done defending retirees, a woman of a certain age (as they say in France) overheard them. Outraged, she yelled sardonically: “Oh yes, the poor retired people are SO miserable in France.” She kept repeating that until she exploded and yelled: “Death penalty for all you communists! They should line you up and kill you all!” The guy didn’t lose his cool – he was probably used to such outbursts but I was laughing. At least ONE person didn’t buy into his tolerance of the thugs and accusation of the government.
But almost everyone else did. Because if on that day of mayhem and destruction you asked 10 people what they thought of the burned cars and smashed windows. 9 would say that it was a site of desolation but that the people were right, the government is wrong. In other words, the people are always right to demonstrate and the government is always wrong in the way it handles things.
While the woman was yelling, I stepped inside a fruit shop and bought some bananas. I asked the young Arab owner if he knew who owned the burnt truck that was parked right in front of his store. “Me”, he replied calmly. That was the truck he uses to go to Rungis to buy his goods and return to the shop to sell them. The thugs have made his life hard now. He will have to buy a new truck and does he have the money? Will the insurance reimburse him and how much? I don’t know what these “casseurs” do other than destroy people’s goods but I would like to see them obliged to pay for the damage they wreak and leave behind.
I know that will never happen. And the reason for that? All those people out there apologising for the destructive actions of a few radicals, happy that they struck at capitalist banks and grocery stores and even small businesses, happy that the cars of people who need them to work are now charred ruins. The thugs are not the only perverted people around.