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Paris Protests For Gaza Despite Repression

Above photo: Palestine Solidarity protest in Paris. Stefan Christoff.

The suppression of Palestine solidarity protests in France speaks to sustaining structures of colonial violence today.

The open repression of Palestine solidarity protests in Paris over the last months has been unprecedented and violent. Although there have been some alarms ringing on this reality of state violence in France, including a statement by Amnesty International, it is important for all who witnessed this new wave of street-level suppression to speak out. I am writing this text after having been present at a number of recent Palestine solidarity actions in Paris.

As mass protests demanding a permanent ceasefire in Gaza continue around the world, French authorities are systematically deploying police forces to silence demonstrations calling for justice in Palestine. Municipal authorities in Paris are refusing requests for permitted protests and consequently sending in armed police to break up many popular and more spontaneous actions in solidarity with Gaza. This reality speaks to an active and dangerous repression of movements supporting Palestine in France that has global implications.

The ability to protest in France has been under attack in recent years, including the targeting of economic justice protests and the repression of demonstrations opposing police killings in the country, a reality that deeply impacts racialized communities in France. This latest wave of silencing, which actively targets gatherings supporting Palestinian life in Gaza, is the latest chapter in a deepening political process of the French state silencing dissent in dangerous ways.

In the North American context, there remains a prominent shorthand understanding of French culture as permitting political space for wide-ranging demonstrations, including protest tactics that include confrontation with symbols of state power, particularly the police. Today, the political landscape in France is changing quickly, which is important to address and point to internationally, as these dangerous shifts continue to take place today.

There is a deep connection between Macron’s policies of nationalized repression toward Palestine solidarity actions, often being carried out by the Gendarmerie Nationale — the national police force directly under the control of the Ministry of Interior — and the broader reality of the repression of social movements, a process that also strongly targets demonstrations against systemic racism and police killings. This past summer, the repression against protesters calling for justice in the case of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old unarmed boy shot by police from point-blank range not far from his home in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, is a chilling case in point.

In late October, I went with local activist friends deeply involved in Palestine solidarity work in France to a popular protest in Place du Châtelet in downtown Paris. The scene was intense. There were armed police all over the place, blocking streets and surveying the situation. Activists who had arrived early with Palestinian flags had been arrested. The protest organizers had requested official permission from city authorities in Paris, but those appeals for legal sanction were denied. This was a clear violation of the fundamental right to protest in France, an upending of French, EU, and international law on freedom of assembly.

At the protest, thousands of people were there together, despite the police intimidation, calling for a ceasefire and an end to the genocidal Israeli state’s attack on the Palestinian people in Gaza. Police were cutting through the crowds in attempts to disperse the protests, but people kept coming from all directions. Each time the police would cut and block the protests around Châtelet, you would hear chants coming from another direction — there were many thousands that responded to the call to protest.

As the afternoon moved on, the protests continued in many directions in downtown Paris, as the sound of motorcycle brigades began rumbling in the city horizon — the much-criticized BRAV-M “motorbike brigades,” which were arriving on the scene to repress the protests. The armed pairs of police, two on each bike, began driving quickly into the crowds that had gathered to express support for Palestine. It was scary; the motorbikes were moving quickly, and if you weren’t watching or had physical mobility challenges, the protest-cutting tactics of the police motorbikes were extremely dangerous.

Despite this repression, people held on, and thousands demonstrated that afternoon, but the physical realities and political atmosphere of repression in Paris were very clear.

The state subjugation of popular demonstrations to support Palestinian human rights — protests calling into question the political and military support of Western states for the Israeli government, particularly France, but also the governments of Germany, the UK, the U.S., and Canada — has been intense. The suppression of solidarity demonstrations has been particularly extreme by those governments that most strongly support Israeli military actions. Yet, in a way, these countries’ state policies seem to be oppositely mirrored by the unprecedented protests of their populace. This speaks to a massive distance of political positions between the streets and the halls of power, as protests supporting Palestinian rights and calling for a free Palestine stand in exact opposition to political power in the West.

The horrifying war crimes in Gaza and the lack of a consequential response from international institutions, which have failed to concretely halt these crimes against humanity in Palestine, points to a growing disconnect between popular political expression on the streets and state policy. The protests in Paris that I attended were a clear illustration of this vast disconnect. The Palestine solidarity movement in France is very strong; it is also very deeply connected to other struggles for justice, both locally and globally.

At the protests that I attended in Paris, the popular voice for Palestine was clear — there were so many people from all areas of the city that joined. I remember another action spontaneously called for after midnight in Paris, when people gathered at Place de la République chanting and standing in a big circle together to support Gaza. As this protest continued, I remember the palpable feeling of fear setting in as police vans began circling the iconic Parisian square. I talked to people in the protest who directly expressed this fear of police attack. This particular protest dispersed relatively quickly after that — as it was spontaneous — and the presence of police became apparent at that late-night action. From this action, I clearly recall the atmosphere of political fear that hung in the air as people gathered to remember and honor Palestinian civilians who had lost their lives in Israeli military airstrikes on Gaza.

The reality of this massive political distance between the streets and Western governments, actively targeted by the police, speaks to a major political challenge of our time. How do the incredible movements for justice in Palestine and for freedom everywhere come to terms with the fact that the vast majority of Western institutions are acting in the interests of imperialist frameworks of violent power, in Palestine and beyond? This reality is a clear echo of colonial lines of power from the past that are sustained today despite the widespread cultural rhetoric of a post-colonial reality in our world. The fact that the Israeli state’s massacres in Gaza are continuing is a horrifying articulation of this reality.

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