How #OccupyGezi could transform Turkish society

Through protesting together, people from different backgrounds are discovering a new power.

There is a fantastic youtube clip which shows anticapitalist youths - men and women - and football ultras building a barricade in the centre of Besiktas, Istanbul. As they form chains to pass rocks from one person to another the camera swings toward the barricade. Atop one sees a young man motivating and inspiring them to increase their pace as police lines seem to advance. The camera re-focuses on the tedious labour of lifting rocks and passing them to the front. These youths are fighting to defend their neighbourhood against riot police. At one and the same time, they are engaged in both a learning process and the production of knowledge. This knowledge will serve future generations and movements to come.

Across the country, in Ankara, my friend Cavidan lectures at a university faculty. She wrote me a Facebook message on Tuesday evening after the first days of university strikes and walkouts. She reports that students chanted many sexist slogans when they walked out. Even worse, clouds of teargas dispersed these upper-class kids. They didn’t succeed to re-assemble for the rest of the day. Her message was one of despair - only a few days into the struggle. While the activists and organisers are worn down physically and psychologically the sexism that Cavidan described hadn’t worn down whatsoever. Yet, Wednesday was another day and the tone of her message was a very different one. Just like the barricade-builders on the Bosphorous, the university students and Cavidan: this mass movement is a learning process for Turkish society as a whole. 

There are various reasons these individuals have joined the ascendant movement. A study by Bilgi University surveyed 3,000 #OccupyGezi protesters in a matter of 20 hours. The study concluded that 70 per cent of the protesters have no party affiliation. Similar percentages are first time protesters and the main reason people have taken to the streets is disproportionate policing. "Authoritarianism" and "respect for individual freedoms" feature as well. Why did people take to the streets this time? What is different?

Mass movements grow when individual grievances, such as personal freedom, attain a collective dimension. As the movement continues Cavidan’s sexist students will be forced to depend on their collective skills of deliberation, decision-making, strategy and tactics just like the men and women building barricades. Through collective resistance, these individuals have discovered their power.

The difference between Cavidan’s students and the barricade-builders in Besiktas highlights the movement’s dynamic, complex and organic nature. Movements are not single celled creatures. Different actors move at different times and pace. While one part carries the lessons of past struggles into the movement others carry the past (sexism, homophobia, sectarianism, etc) into it. But through working together, new knowledge is created - and new alliances can be built.

Another youtube clip, of a Turkish Airlines cabin crew on strike, underlines this process of cross-pollination. With their faces hidden behind the Guy Fawkes/Anonymous masks - the symbol of the new wave of anti-capitalist protest since Occupy – they are lined up in a dance-formation in front of the Turkish Airlines headquarters in Galatar. Rather than performing a dance routine the female strikers subvert the usual safety announcement conducted at the beginning of each flight. They condemn the media for not covering their dispute and go through a list of grievances before fastening their seatbelts – to their necks creating a noose to hang themselves. This is culturejamming at its finest, coming from a group of workers who traditionally vote Erdogan's for AKP.

The parameters of Turkish politics have changed. The previous secular/Islamist divide which dominated Turkish politics for decades is being re-negotiated on the movement's terms. From now on, different classes will articulate their political strategies through – or, in relation to – the movement. On the holy day, Mirac Kandili, the prominent Anticapitalist Muslim leader Ihsan Eliacçık requested that protesters be respectful to one another. The OccupyGezi camp agreed that there wouldn’t be any drinking or singing at the park as in previous nights. The leftist groups won’t be organising their concert. Instead, they organised a prayer and will distribute "simit" (a traditional speciality for this holy day).

By appropriating the language, symbols and discourses of its opponents #OccupyGezi is revealing the fragile nature of Erdogan's power. On Sunday evening, the television station NTV didn’t broadcast anything about the demonstrations across in towns and cities across Turkey. Instead they showed a documentary about penguins. Since, protesters have used penguins as a symbol of their resistance. One image floating on facebook shows an army of penguins with the text: "Tayyip – Winter is coming". This Game of Thrones reference comes after Erdogan said: "We already have a spring in Turkey . . . but there are those who want to turn this spring into winter . . . Be calm, these will all pass." When Erdogan equated protesters to looters (çapulcu), people started to make videos and jokes about his statement or add "çapulcu" as an adjective in front of their names on facebook and twitter. Now people are conjugating this word into other languages like French and English. Facebook statuses have turned into placards at the protests. They attempt to connect with like-minded movements across the world, in the face of a silent domestic media.

Back on the streets of Besiktas, protesters hijacked an excavator to break through police lines. Movements will make use of whatever tools are at their disposal. The direct experience of self-organisation, collective action, and human solidarity lays the foundation for a new society. The parameters of Turkish politics have changed - the question is whether the parameters will be changed once and for all.

Follow Mark Bergfeld on Twitter @mdbergfeld

Protesters build a barricade in Istanbul, near the office of the prime minister. (Photo: Getty Images.)
People protest Macron’s policies amid a rail strike and spreading student sit-ins. Credit: Getty
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How Emmanuel Macron may become France’s first president to defeat strikers in decades

Or, as has happened before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow him. 

Since his election almost exactly a year ago, French president Emmanuel Macron has never ceased to surprise his compatriots and wrong-foot his political rivals. Two recent TV interviews, given a few days apart, provided another example of how he intends to disrupt the status quo to his advantage – both at home and on the international stage.

Two weeks into a three-month strike by the national rail network SNCF, called by the powerful, communist-led CGT trade union, Macron needed to convince the French public that his planned reform of the state railways was not an act of stealth privatisation but a necessary adjustment of an employment status dating back to 1920 (when train-driving was both physically strenuous and dangerous).

Today, around 150,000 rail workers in France benefit from a job for life, retirement at the age of 57 (compared to 62 nationally) and an array of benefits. Among these workers, train drivers are even better treated: they retire at 52 with free life travel or heavily discounted fares for their family and extended family (spouses, children and in-laws). Partly as a result, the state railways have amassed debts of €50bn. The French government is proposing to bail out SNCF in exchange for ending the existing employment terms for new workers (while maintaining them for current employees).

President Macron chose to give his first televised interview on the subject on 12 April at lunchtime in a primary school classroom in Normandy. Seven million viewers tuned in. The interviewer was polite, the exchange was civil and the unusual setting intrigued, amused and charmed the audience. Was Macron convincing? The strikes, which resumed later that evening, were not as well-attended as before. Are the unions already losing momentum?

Former French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy sought previously to reform the state railways in 1995 and 2010. Both were forced to retreat after weeks of strikes paralysed the country (indeed, there has not been a strike-free year on the SNCF since 1959). They also capitulated because a majority of French voters, imbued with the spirit of the revolution, were unconditionally backing the trade unions.

 But today is different. Macron knows this. So do the unions. Ultimately, the French alone will decide with whom they side: their inner rebel or their inner reformer?

The stakes are high for both sides and for the country. A recent opinion poll found that France was almost perfectly divided: a slight majority (52 per cent) backing the reforms and a large minority (48 per cent) supporting the strikers. Macron, who won just 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, has faced no greater challenge to his domestic authority.

Yet as the centre-right Républicains and the enfeebled centre-left Parti Socialiste have all but left the political stage, the only loud adversaries of the French government are at the extremes.

Both the far right and the far left are deploying the same arguments against Macron’s reforms. Front National leader Marine Le Pen (the runner-up in last year’s presidential election) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), who finished fourth, are accusing the government of planning the full privatisation of the railways at the behest of the EU. They are playing on fears, weaving conspiracy theories, so that their voters see in Macron’s reforms the end of the French welfare system.

France spends more on social security than any other EU country (34.3 per cent of GDP compared to the EU average of 28.7 per cent). Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany all trail behind. With good reason, the French are deeply attached to their welfare state: its dismantlement is not proposed by Macron.

The inconsistency of the president’s detractors was rarely more apparent than during his second TV interview on the evening of 15 April. Unique in its format, this three-hour affair, staged at the Palais de Chaillot with the Eiffel Tower in the background, was broadcast on private news channel BFMTV. For once, the president had not received the questions in advance – a revealing encounter lay ahead.

But Edwy Plenel, a Trotskyist activist and founder of the powerful news website Mediapart, and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, a talk show host on the popular Radio Monte Carlo, resorted to gratuitously attacking Macron and talking over each other without once destabilising the president. The French had to endure the sorry spectacle of populist journalism à la française, while their head of state emerged unscathed. Once again, Macron had challenged the norm, and prevailed.

Strikers who invoke the May 1968 évènements, in an attempt to galvanise the French workforce, are unwise to do so. Talk of a mai chaud (a May simmering with social anger) is at best hasty and at worst delusional.

Some French universities have been occupied and blockaded by radical leftist and anarchist students (partly in protest at more selective entry requirements). They have demanded the resignation of Macron and for student work to be automatically marked ten out of 20, ensuring undergraduates pass their exams while striking. Yet their filmed “general assemblies”, available on YouTube, should reassure Macron’s supporters. The students’ incoherent political message poses little threat to the government.

As so often before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow Macron. But there is now the genuine possibility that he may become the first French president in decades to beat “the street”.

Should Macron succeed, it will be due to his personal conviction and to his now-legendary luck. But it will also be due to the French people, who will have decided finally to trust him – at least for the time being.

Agnès Poirier is the author of “Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950”

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge