Could Extinction Rebellion reshape French politics?

Climate activists have united with gilets jaunes, undocumented immigrants and students in opposition to environmental and social destruction. 

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It’s not just Westminster that’s occupied by the climate activists of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Since Monday afternoon, tents have bloomed on Paris’s Châtelet square, with hundreds of XR “rebels” blocking one of the busiest crossroads at the heart of the French capital. 

The French XR protesters have already spent two nights at Châtelet. Their demonstration was due to last until the end of the week but protesters are now claiming they’ll stay up to ten days if possible. Among the participants are students, parents and activists from previous climate movements, including people who took part in the years-long protest against the airport hub at Notre-Dame-Des-Landes and the movement that removed official portraits of Emmanuel Macron this year over his government’s inadequate climate policies. 

Unlike in London, where the protest near parliament has led to over 600 arrests, the Paris event has been non-violent so far, with French armed forces keeping watch from a distance as the rebels organise workshops and general meetings and children play at make-up stands to the camp’s techno music.

The scene at Châtelet differs from the first major XR protest in France last weekend, when activists from various climate and social groups, including XR, took over the Italie 2 shopping centre in southern Paris. Billed as the “last occupation before the end of the world”, the protest aimed to unite “ecological and social struggles” to “resist the planned destruction of the living world”. By occupying “a space that symbolises the system”, their manifesto said, protesters would turn it into “the people’s house”. 

XR rebels, other climate activists, gilets jaunes, undocumented immigrants, and activists from the banlieues fighting against police violence with the Adama Committee were all present: the current social and economic system, they said, is “based on oppression” and “widens the inequality gap between the working classes and the upper clases”. There were even a few activists from Hong Kong. 

At the peak of the Italie 2 protest, more than a thousand activists occupied the centre. Banners and tags read “Together, let’s destroy what is destroying us”, “Radical ecology, death to the capital”, “Let’s burn capitalism, not petrol” and “Long live the Paris Commune”. The protest’s message, through its manifesto, its slogans and the diversity of its participants, was overtly political, and as such was met with a firm response from the police. At 8pm, the armed forces tried to break in, gassing the shopping centre en masse but ultimately failing to force protesters out. They left of their own will around 4am that night.

It is unclear how the police will respond to the Châtelet XR occupy protest as it grows, especially if it lasts for ten days (as much as the transport hub is every Parisian’s own hell, the blockade, as in London, paralyses a critical traffic point). But after three days, it appears the plan so far is to tolerate the protest — unlike Italie 2 or the blockade on the Sully bridge in June, when the French police infamously doused XR climate activists with tear gas. People at the Châtelet protest are chanting anti-capitalist slogans, but not branding them anywhere and occupying public instead of private space. 

The crowd is almost exclusively composed of XR members, who unlike other social movements are vocally non-violent. “The state generally adapts its action to the people and the situation it faces: as long as they’re not threatening, it lets them be,” the historian Mathilde Larrère, who studies French social uprisings, told the independent climate news website Reporterre. The presence of gilets jaunes, Hong Kong activists and the Adama Committee gave the shopping center protest a “strong political dimension” apparently absent in Châtelet, Larrère added.

As Greta Thunberg’s Youth for Climate movement has grown exponentially over the last year, Emmanuel Macron has praised young climate activists, stating that: “we the leaders need you to make our life impossible, to incite us to move faster [on climate change].” He has since changed his view, claiming in September that Thunberg was becoming too “radical” and inviting young climate activists to “clean up beaches” or “go protest in Poland” instead of marching every week.

The longer the Châtelet protest lasts, the closer it gets to making Macron’s life more difficult. The former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal has called for Extinction Rebellion to be “repressed quickly” but the French president doesn’t appear to have felt seriously threatened so far. That’s good news for the protesters since the movements deemed more threatening by Macron include members who have lost eyes and limbs to police weapons — but it might also mean that their action is not having the anticipated result. 

To be properly heard, Extinction Rebellion France has the noble but daunting task of making Macron’s life impossible without actually forcing him to pay attention. Based on the president’s ability to listen to the woes of the gilets jaunes, the hospital staff, the teachers, the studentsthe farmers, the unemployed, and the general working population, this could last a while. 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.