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Citizens’ Insurrection by the People of the Left at the Bastille

Original French Article: Insurrection citoyenne du peuple de gauche à la Bastille, By Mina Kaci and Marie-José Sirach Translated Tuesday 20 March 2012, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Isabelle Métral 120,000 persons launched an assault on the Place de la Bastille in Paris, this Sunday 18 March, at the call of the Front de … Continued

Original French Article: Insurrection citoyenne du peuple de gauche à la Bastille, By Mina Kaci and Marie-José Sirach

Translated Tuesday 20 March 2012, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Isabelle Métral

120,000 persons launched an assault on the Place de la Bastille in Paris, this Sunday 18 March, at the call of the Front de gauche. Never before seen in a presidential campaign. A bet won by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The people of the Left is in the streets. This is perhaps the first political lesson to be drawn from this day, a turning point in the presidential campaign. Live from the Place de la Bastille, the first participative demonstration to pound the paving stones of Paris, the first popular meeting in open air. Workers, teachers, employees, managers, researchers, railway workers, students, people with marginal employment, unemployed, retired … they have come, and they are all here. From Paris and the suburbs, from the Var (in the south-east) or from the depths of the Ariège (in the south-west), from the Vendée (in the west) or from the North, en passant par la Lorraine [1] (in the east). On scooters, bicycles, by car, by train, car-sharing, some wearing Phrygian hats, others with women’s revolutionary white hats, waving red flags or the French tri-color flags.

“Even in pouring rain, we’d have come all the same”, Jacqueline, from Orleans, says. The number of demonstrators keeps growing by the hour. At 2:32 pm the first demonstrators enter the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Joy is in the air, with young people, old-timers, and kids. “Let’s reinvent happiness”, one woman has scribbled on a piece of cardboard. At 4 pm, “We are already more than 100,000”, a voice cries from the podium, where musicians and comedians follow one another in a quick succession of acts, leading to the speech by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. It is a long human chain preparing “a citizens’ revolution”.

History never repeats itself. But this Sunday has an air of Spring, reminiscent of the Popular Front, of the Commune de Paris, of the French Revolution. “Who would have bet as much as a kopek six months ago on the success of such a meeting”, an old Communist on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine whispers to us.

Is Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the process of meeting the challenge he set for himself, namely, “to set the whole of society on fire”, staking his all on the political re-awakening of the blue collar class, to whom he addressed his early meetings? The extent to which he has succeeded can be measured by the presence of contingents of workers from many companies sacrificed to their owners’ greed: Fralib, Thales, Sodimédical, ArcelorMittal, Still-Saxby, Petroplus, M’Real, Arkema, … [2]. These workers have come to “set fires”, as Fabien says gayly, one of the guys from ArcelorMittal in his blue overalls, walking beside his buddies.

But the Bastille rally far outnumbers its blue collar core. One demonstrator whom we happen to meet between Nation and the Bastille, called Patrick, a teacher from the Haute-Savoie, is convinced that “A citizens’ insurrection is absolutely necessary. In my profession, people suffer from a loss of meaning of their work. We labor under a kind of collective schizophrenia. That’s why the citizens’ insurrection is what is needed.” Caroline, a 20-year old architect, says to us: “People of my own generation find it hard to find their place in society, no matter where you look. We just can’t wait years for change.” And yet this young woman has joined the march out of curiosity, not being sure for whom she will vote, but “to see for myself this much talked-of movement”. The same is true of André Manoukian, a musician who has come with his family. “It is a fine day to march, I intended to cast a ‘useful vote’ [3], but … I wanted to see with my own eyes.”

In our own hands the political future lies

Farther on a demonstrator named Luc, who took the 5:20 am train from Toulon, declares, “We are the French early-risers [4], gathered here to take part in a citizens’ insurrection”. A seventy-five year-old woman, Jacqueline, has also left home in the mountain peaks of the Savoie to take part in the storming of the Bastille. Guillaume Kervern, a film maker and citizen of Groland [5], is also in the march: “I like Mélenchon a lot. I have fallen under the charm of his oratory, of his humor, of his ideas. In Groland we are divided between Hollande and Mélenchon, and I’m for Mélenchon.”

How has this happened? Jean-Philippe and Annie-Pierre left by automobile at 3 am from the Lot-et-Garonne (in the south-west). In 2007 they believed what Sarkozy was saying, and even campaigned for him. Today, they define themselves as “the disappointed lot of Sarkozism. Sarkozy has left people to die of hunger.” So when Mélenchon calls upon the people to wake up, they are in 100% agreement: “It is in our hands that the political future lies. The insurrection, for us, is to take political power. We are not afraid.” As if echoed by the sentiments of Pierre Laurent, national secretary of the French Communist Party [6], some minutes later: “This march is not a demonstration of force. It is above all a call to those who have not yet joined us, to say to them: Look at what has been set in motion. It is the people. Citizens who, for the most part, have come to play an active rôle in the campaign. And we don’t say ‘support us’ to these citizens , but ‘prenez le pouvoir’ [7].

How has this happened? The people who won the “Non” vote on the European Constitution in 2005 have been reawakened. ‘Groggy’ for a while, they seem to find new hope and have a steel-like conviction as to their power to weigh in the balance of forces. “The movement is deep because it is not simply there to bear witness. It is a battle that will have its effects in the middle and long term”, an analysis by Christian Piquet. Spokesman for the Gauche unitaire, he explains: “We are building a force indispensable for the defeat of the right, and also for the redistribution of the cards on the Left.”

A movement all the more credible since the polls credit the candidate of the Front de gauche with 11% of intended votes, twice what was polled last autumn. The Front de gauche has become the undeniable force on the new political chessboard, because it has succeeded in giving confidence to the people of the Left, who, this afternoon, raise their heads and rediscover their pride.

It is 5 pm when Jean-Luc Mélenchon takes the podium. The Place de la Bastille cannot contain the assembled crowd, which squeezes into the nearby streets. “We are the cry of the people,” he launches, “the people forgotten, despised, abandoned … the cry of those who wish to bring their intelligence to the common cause, who refuse the moral positions of egoism. I call on you to begin the springtime of the people!” Mélenchon cites Louise Michel, Jules Vallès and the poet Antonio Machado: “The road is made by walking” [8] calling on the people to occupy all the public squares in all the towns and villages of France. The Front de gauche gives rendez-vous for the 5th of April at the Place du Capitole in Toulouse, and the 14th of April in the square of the Prado in Marseille. Spread the word!!

Henry Crapo is a member of Truthout’s Board.


[1] This taken from a traditional song.

[2] Companies that have recently announced plant closings and delocalizations for economic reasons, often in the presence of profitable operations. For example, Fralib, in Aubagne, near Marseille, is the sole factory of the group Unilever that produces Lipton teas and Elephant infusions. The plant closing was announced in September 2010. The layoffs were judged to be unjustified, after a hearing by the appeals court of Aix-en-Provence.

[3] Translator’s note: The vote utile, the “useful vote”, suggesting that to vote otherwise is “useless”, is the idea that it is not safe to vote for a third party because that might permit the extreme right wing candidate to slip into second place, leaving a run-off second tour guaranteeing the election of the right wing (incumbent) candidate, as happened in France in 2002. This concept is the foundation stone of “bipartism” and “alternation”, which has led, in many countries, such as Germany, Italy, Spain, and the US, to the formation of two increasingly similar parties with much the same politics, a soft, merely nominal, alternative, and to increasing scores for voter abstention. The Socialist Party candidate started using this argument as his main campaign theme, but has now backed off, asserting that “Every vote is useful”. The Front de gauche has pointed out that this year it is virtually impossible not to have a candidate of the Left present in the run-off, be it Hollande (PS) or Mélenchon (Fdg).

[4] “La France qui de lève tôt”, early risers, is an allusion to Sarkozy’s slogan in the 2007 campaign: he boasted of being the candidate of all those whom he called hard-working people, those who get up early in the morning to go to work. So Luc can be counted among the déçus de Sarkozy, those disillusioned by these last five years of Sarkozy’s anti-labor politics.

[5] Groland is an imaginary country, subject of a nightly comedy routine for terse political ridicule and commentary on the television channel Canal Plus

[6] The PCF, a leading element of the Front de gauche

[7] ‘Take power’

[8] From the Wikipedia article “Antonio Machado”:

“Wanderer, your footsteps are

the road, and nothing more;

wanderer, there is no road,

the road is made by walking.

By walking one makes the road,

and upon glancing behind

one sees the path

that never will be trod again.

Wanderer, there is no road—

Only wakes upon the sea.”

from “Proverbios y cantares” in Campos de Castilla. 1912

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