The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, February 23, 2003

My wife and I were at the Paris antiwar demo on February 15 2003. It was huge.

It started off without any big banner or contingent at the front. The crowd moving along the pavements, then the middle of the street, just became more and more dense, until it completely filled the boulevard from side to side. Minutes passed before the first banners and placards appeared. Among the first banners to pass was 'Americans Against the War' which was greeted with applause. The first and largest part of the crowd was very diverse, the banners being those of local anti-war campaigns, pacifist, religious or human-rights groups. Most of the people looked like normal people rather than usual suspects (e.g. moi), but this may be just because the French left is massive. (On the London demo the organised left and peace movement were drops in the ocean - not so in Paris.)

The general atmosphere was militant and creative, with youth groups varying the necessarily slow pace with sit-downs and speeches followed by a mass charge to fill the gap opened up. Lots of hand-drawn placards,some witty ('J'aime les pretzels') and some naive ('Veto' addressed to the French government).

There were a lot of African and North African workers in the crowd, and some organised immigrant contingents like the Association [of somewhere] des Sans-Papiers.

The cops cleared the streets in front and brought up the rear, but along the whole enormous length of the demo there wasn't a cop in sight (other than the usual vanloads down side streets). There was no visible stewarding. Despite or because of this, people felt safe enough to bring children and babies. Old folks and people in wheelchairs were there.

As the crowd moved down Boulevard St-Michel and turned the corner into Boulevard St-Germain the streets were filled as far as the
eye could see. This was despite large numbers taking shortcuts around the corner via the embankment of the Seine to rejoin farther up at the bridge. In the crush it didn't feel like being on a demo. It felt like being in a revolution.

As we reached the Place de la Bastille, about four hours after the start of the demo, we saw that the lower tiers of the monument were occupied by mostly young people, one or two waving Palestinian and Iraqi flags and setting off flares. The square never actually filled up, because a lot of people, and entire contingents, went off to the buses or other transport soon after they arrived. As far as I know there weren't any speakers or a rally afterwards. I remarked to Carol that this might be because once you've marched people to the Place de la Bastille, the only thing left to ask them to do is storm the Bastille, and, well ...

The big battalions of Confederation Generale de Travaille (CGT) and other union contingents came in near the end, followed by the parties of the left.

Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) flags and stickers were sprinkled through the main part of the crowd, as were those of other left parties. The Socialisme Par En Bas group did a roaring trade in anti-war T-shirts with the traditional British-SWP-style angular clenched fist. The left contingents were towards the end of the march, and those of the LCR, the other large Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvriere and, incredibly, the formerly enormous French Communist Party (PCF) looked approximately the same size. (To be fair, many of the PCF people were in the CGT contingents.) LO and PCF had sound-trucks, the LCR had a sea of snazzy flags.

It's hard to estimate numbers, but there were at least 100 000 and possibly 200 000. It was easily one of the biggest and broadest demos I've ever been on, and the biggest in France since ... last June.


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