We wanted to go to Paris during the strikes.
We could fly if there was a lull in airport workers runway battles with riot police. We reckoned three hours then to walk to the centre of Paris. It was freezing cold.
When we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport we found an Air France shuttle bus operating so tonight there would be no need of heroics.
We climbed on board the bus and sped to Paris. It was evening and the traffic was all one way, out of the city. The vast ring road, the peripherique, that separates Paris from the first ring of suburbs was choked with cars. “Regardez la periphe,” our fellow passengers exclaimed excitedly as they were borne rapidly in the opposite direction.
The bus reached Place de l’Etoile and everyone got out. “Where are you going?” someone asked me. With my scant knowledge of Paris geography I answered confidently: “Montparnasse.”
“That’s a long way to walk.”
“Montmartre,” I countered.
”That’s a long way to walk as well.”
”Well, I have come to see things. I can walk and look,” I insisted.
”Paris is a big city.”
At Place de l’Etoile we saw two policemen guarding a public building and carrying automatic machine guns. Even traffic police have sidearms. It is very odd seeing police uniformly armed. Most British children have never seen a real live gun.
We walked not to Montmartre, nor yet to Montparnasse, but to the Gare de Nord where we had arranged to meet another comrade. The walk took two hours, so we were late and he had left.
We booked into a crummy hotel near the station and ate in a restaurant which normally would cater to the Francophile British tourist trade.
“Monsieur, you have no customers,” I exclaimed with some panache.
“These shitty strikes,” he replied, and more rude words which I could not catch.
France is damned expensive for us Britishers. Is it the franc fort, the weak pound and a crummy exchange rate? Or is it the high cost of French living? Whatever the explanation, this single European currency lark begins to look quite appealing.
When we had paid a lot of money for our dinner we went to our hotel and slept what seemed a very short time until next day. In the morning we made some phone calls from the echoing empty concourse of the Gare de Nord but failed to locate our lost comrade. Comrades from the LCR office told us that today’s big demo would leave the Odeon near the Jardin du Luxembourg at 1pm and go to the National Assembly.
We were early for the march and sat nursing cups of tea in a cafe near the Odeon. The streets outside began to fill with floats and people carrying banners. At half past twelve. There aren’t so many people.
Where does the march start? We walked up a side street to the Odeon. Some public sector workers on a picket sent us back to where we had come from. One o’clock.
There were more people around now. We ran about taking photos.
When the TUC in Britain organises a march they spend a fortune conveying a corporate image with banners and badges and balloons
and other merchandise.
Here, where at least three mini-TUC’s are in action, the march is similarly festooned.
Every organisation mass-produces big rectangular stickers with a slogan. People are papered with these. “Seize private schools”, “don’t privatise the post,” etc. Half past one.
Today’s march is organised by the high-school teachers’ unions, but others will probably join it, including school pupils and students. The students are voting now in their general assembly.
Groups of young people feed into the march from side streets. They line up behind banners they have made which read “Teachers and pupils together.”
The desire to make a mark on the proceedings seizes us. The desire to sell magazines seizes us! We get out Workers’ Liberty, devise some lurid slogans and set to advertising our wares.
As we get our tongues round the foreign words our French accents get more outrageous. Selling in Britain was never this much fun.
We cut odd figures and sell remarkably well. People are impressed by the thought that British socialists would get into this unreachable city to sell on this demonstration. They are very friendly to us. We do ourselves some good, keeping alive the lost but essential art of international working-class solidarity.
It was freezing cold. The march had set off and we hadn’t noticed, so big was it. At half past two the snake had uncoiled and we in its tail finally moved.
Running, ambling, singing, shouting, waving things, snapping wildly away with our cameras and picking up any leaflet we could get hold of – what it is to rediscover a thirst for knowledge! – we never got to the National Assembly. The front of the march had reached it, held a rally and begun to disperse before we were near.
As we marched, people from the front of the demonstration had furled up their banners and were heading back past us in the late afternoon.
We had been privileged with a glimpse of the great workers movement rocking France. One group of workers had marched today. Tomorrow it would be another group. Next week it would be all the workers, in every big city and town across the country, as the main union federations had called a joint demonstration.
Thought this was a teachers’ demonstration, at the front of the march had been railworkers, the vanguard of the current action. Railworkers and metro workers, whose strike had paralysed transport in the capital and provinces.
Mindful of the effect of their action, and the long walk back to our hostel, we regretfully called it a day and peeled off down a side street. A line of burly marchers stretched from pavement to pavement. Twenty yards behind them, a line of burly riot police stretched from pavement to pavement.
“Where do you live?” asked the burly marchers. “We live in a youth hostel. We are English,” we said in little voices. They laughed sardonically and let us through to “meet our French police.”
Burly riot police in France means built the proverbial brick shit-house, toting great teargas canisters and pistols. Riot police chic is a handlebar moustache. These men fancy themselves. They like for you to stand there and point with your mouth hanging open in disbelief. We were like people from two unacquainted tribes confronting each other. They let us through.
We walked. To the youth hostel where we would spend the night and where we hoped to meet our lost comrade. We passed traffic jams all along the route but saw none of that road-rage it is so fashionable to talk about in Britain now.
Our comrade had been at the youth hostel, gone on the march, left. He had meant to come for a day to convey greetings to his international counterparts, the French railworkers. He had done it and now he had departed.
We were frozen to the marrow and our faces burned from exposure. We wanted new skeletons. But if such be the price of international solidarity...
The next day we went a-calling. Four hours walking out, and four hours back in.
On our way home to our hostel we followed the eastern section of the peripherique.
Paris is so built that out on the edge you still feel part of one big - anonymous - whole. Long boulevards lined with flats fan out from the centre. Long wide boulevards, hard for the Parisian mobs to erect barricades across. Straight too, so that in future class conflicts government troops standing at one end can enjoy a direct line of fire.
The town planners have managed inadvertently to to create an alienating environment. I begin to see why class struggle here often includes a philosophising aspect.
Passing one of the “Portes” – inhospitable intersections where the boulevards cross the periphe and head for the suburbs – we espied a melee. A street market of mainly Arabs, lined up with their second cars. Just as in London’s Petticoat Lane some of the vendors had only one item – a blanket, a pair of sunglasses – to sell.