Friday, 29 April 2016

On Being Sort Of Accidentally Tear-Gassed

Yesterday afternoon I was travelling across Paris, quietly minding my business as I changed from the RER  at Nation. As I stepped on the escalator up towards the metro, I suddenly became aware that there were a lot of people coming down the stairs next to me, covering their faces with their hands and scarves, and someone mentioned the word incendie. Unfortunately, turning around on the escalator wasn't an option, so I had to go all the way to the top, by which time my eyes were starting to sting and I there was a strong chemical smell in the air. This wasn't smoke - it was tear gas.

There were a couple of policemen at the bottom of the stairs who explained nonchalantly that some of the people at the demonstration on the Place de la Nation (contesting the loi El Khomri, which many perceive as an attack on workers' rights) had turned violent, hence the intervention of the CRS. When I asked for more information (such as, was it safe to leave the station), he said they hadn't had any contact with the police up above and didn't know any more. Nobody else seemed particularly bothered though, so in the end I just followed the crowd, took another exit and walked the rest of the way back.

The side of the square where I exited the station seemed pretty calm and I was actually able to make my way across the marching protestors to head in the right direction for home, but I read some news reports later in the evening saying that around 300 casseurs (hooligans) had disrupted the demonstration and 24 police officers were injured, including one who was seriously hurt when a paving stone was thrown at his head.

To put this into perspective, official estimates of the number of demonstrators range from 170 000 (according to the police) and 500 000 (according to the organisers), so 300 is a tiny proportion of the people who were involved, but sadly this is something that often happens in France: peaceful and legitimate political protest is hijacked by vandals who break windows, burn cars and have no scruples about seriously injuring either the police or anybody else who happens to get in their way. And for that reason, I have a lot of sympathy for the police, who are often criticised for their heavy-handed tactics, but are supposed to control this kind of behaviour.

On the other hand, it doesn't really present a good image to the public if hundreds of people in a metro station are exposed to tear gas and effectively given the choice between breathing it in or heading up to the surface and potentially being caught up in a riot. I was able to get myself out of the situation pretty quickly, but what about someone who had just got off the metro at the other end of that corridor? Or an old person who couldn't move very fast, or parents with small children?

It's a situation that reminds me a lot of football hooliganism a few years ago, where everyone's enjoyment was spoiled by a few people who were more interested in fights than the game and gave the sport a really bad reputation. Perhaps it's time for a similar crackdown on the casseurs.

UPDATE: watching footage of what happened on TV, it looks as if maybe what we were breathing in the station was tear gas which was thrown outside (because there was a LOT) and sucked down the air vents to the metro. So still not a great situation, but maybe less deliberate than it initially appeared!

1 comment:

  1. Ugh. I'm sort of puzzled when I see protests in France. It's weird. My French side agrees with the protesters, my Canadian (and slightly more mature) side is a bit more... split. I just don't know.

    I was tear-gassed accidentally when I was pregnant, during the demonstrations in Nantes against the new airport. The fight is still ongoing BTW. Anyway, I was visiting my parents and I was taking pictures but not taking part. I was pissed off about the tear gas!