The French do love an excuse to march dans les rues. About every few days, wending our way around Paris, we find inexplicable traffic blockages, heralded by truckloads of idling police buses. The cops in riot gear occasionally get out and smoke on the sidewalk, but otherwise they do nothing to either harass or encourage the protesters.
We’ve stumbled upon security unions marching for better bulletproof vests, rollerbladers rolling in the streets to demand more street space, Tunisians marching to draw attention to political prisoners in Tunis. Sometimes it turns out it’s the Gypsies burning someone in effigy, or other assemblages with purposes too obscure for us to even understand. No grievance is too minor to take to the streets. They have a pet name for these strikes, “manif” — short for “manifestation.” Cabdrivers will mutter “petit manif!” as they hit the brakes, encouraging passengers to get out and walk. Traffic comes to a halt, banners fly, slogans are chanted and Parisians just step around it all.
But since Le Pen’s surprise showing in last week’s election, Parisians have been in the streets more than usual and the graffiti in their wake has gotten much more interesting. My personal favorite — before today — was a defaced Elizabeth Hurley ad for Lancôme on a bus stop nearby. Someone has scrawled “Parfum Fasciste!” over her supremely self-satisfied mien. They’re finding the fascism in the mundane here right now.
Wednesday, May Day, Parisians outdid themselves. In the morning, Le Pen himself spoke to a crowd of some 10,000 near a statue of Joan of Arc. His neatly dressed minions handed out stickers describing the extreme right as “hypercool.” In the afternoon, more than 1 million turned out for an anti-Le Pen rally, trying to redeem themselves for the apathetic-voter syndrome that let Le Pen embarrass France a Sunday ago.
By mid-afternoon between the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la Republique, hundreds of thousands of people squeezed together and moved as one organism. No one gave a speech, and no one seemed to know where they were headed. It was enough, apparently, to just be among them, adding a body to the count.
One young woman, hearing me speaking English, asked what I thought of the rally.
“C’est bon,” I said, unable to consider any other critique under the circumstances.
“You’re not scared of the crowd?”
Actually, I am uncomfortable anytime I can’t move a muscle because of a surging wall of humanity, but I said no. The girl smiled beatifically, and disappeared into the sea of flesh.
Traditional May Day bouquets of lilies of the valley, in plastic cups labeled “Je Porte bonheur” (I carry happiness), were sold by vendors on snatches of sidewalk where the crowds weren’t packed. The flowers are a remnant of medieval May Days, when young people welcomed the return of spring with maypoles and dancing.
On an average May Day in Paris, besides the little bouquets, the streets would be filled with unions parading to celebrate the international day of the worker. Unions were out today, but their ranks were swelled by the addition of a whole array of otherwise unorganized people.
“Le Pen, thanks for waking us up,” read some of the signs. Children and French terriers on leashes wandered around with the word “non” taped on their backs. Elderly people — old enough possibly to remember the Vichy government — leaned on canes in the surging crowd, but no one collapsed. Well-heeled men and women in Campers and Hermes scarves were pressed up against college kids in Guatemalan save-the-rain forest cottons. Rasta flags with Bob Marley’s face emblazoned on a background of green, yellow and red were flying next to the French tricolor and various union banners. Communists were doing a brisk business selling Che T-shirts, and another clever one that arranged a hammer and sickle like a Nike logo with the words “Strike. Just Do It.”
The monument at the Bastille Wednesday night is scrawled with anti-fascist graffiti and the streets across this side of the city are papered with abandoned picket signs. “LEPENIS!” and “Hitler 1933, Le Pen jamais!” are just a few of the slogans. Color photographs of Le Pen, his mouth digitally remastered into that of a snarling dog, are everywhere. As far as I know, there were no fights or serious property damage. (Parisian cleanup crews will have the graffiti blasted off the Bastille before daybreak — like doggie-doo scooping, it’s one of the jobs they have perfected here.)
Having covered dozens of large-scale American political rallies in the 1990s, I find it hard to shake the expectation that massive public displays are either carefully produced like Hollywood movies, with participants organized by experts with mailing lists and phone banks or possibly even bused in for the rally, or else they are chaotic riots with thugs and mass looting. Wednesday’s event in Paris had the feel of something unorganized, a genuine outpouring of people from their houses and into the streets to show solidarity. Approaching the surging crowd we saw parents pushing strollers, whole groups of families on an afternoon outing, and — expecting tear gas or at least some old-fashioned car-flipping — we rolled our eyes in wonder.
In fact, the crowd was much like those that gather after a big win by a sports team in Chicago or New York, but with a difference: It is difficult to imagine a political cause that could lure Americans of so many different colors, ages and classes as Wednesday’s grande manif in Paris. If a scary xenophobe came in distant second for president, would Americans of all races step out of their doors and hit the streets en masse? Bars and cafes are packed tonight with Parisians patting themselves on the back for having put on a colossal nonviolent rally. They deserve it. It was like Mardi Gras without the planter’s punch.