The French ‘Freedom Convoy’ was met with an unprecedented and extraordinary degree of state repression and violence.
I saw off pensioners in their camper vans from south-west France on Thursday morning. On Friday evening, there were tanks waiting for them on the streets of Paris. Over 7000 highly armed police ringed the city to prevent people from entering.
The convoy spokespeople – a teacher at a Catholic school and a nurse – had chosen the path of non-confrontation and ‘dialogue’. They said that they would not enter Paris, but would rather meet at a picnic site outside the city, and they invited politicians to meet with them for a discussion and to hear their concerns.
In response, police blocked roads leading to the picnic site, meaning that many convoys were unable to arrive. Supporters bringing food and supplies were also unable to arrive.
A small group of vehicles that attempted a road block protest were dealt with violently, with the police smashing car windows and dragging out their drivers.
In pitched battles protesters were beaten by groups of police, and a young protester went into apparent cardiac arrest while the crowd shouted ‘murderers!’ at police lines. Tear gas was used liberally and hundreds of fines given out. The French state spared no expense, and no military hardware, in order to block protesters from arriving in Paris and to deal with them harshly if they made it through.
The second stage of the convoy was supposed to be Brussels, and the Belgian state lined up in similar military formation. French cars crossing into Belgium on Sunday night posted videos of lines of Belgian police vans and urged their compatriots to make it across the border that night: ‘Leave as quickly as possible, the cavalry is arriving!’
When a group of drivers arrived in Belgium the next morning, they were conducted under armed police escort to an area outside the city, and prevented from entering the city.
This degree of repression shows how covid politics represents an elite politics of public containment. The public must at all costs be kept from influencing the debate. Macron will change measures if and when he is good and ready. This is a question of executive diktat: it is not a matter for public demands, nor for the ‘dialogue’ that the convoy organisers hoped for.
You ask for dialogue, they will send tanks. That is the lesson of the French convoy.
The public sacrifice and solidarity shown in France over the past few days has been extraordinary. People set out for journeys of several days, heading into the unknown, prepared to sleep in their cars and paying hundreds or thousands of euros in petrol costs. They have been met with offers of bed and breakfast, tables of food, even money for petrol.
This was a movement put together on Telegram in a matter of days, with organisers working out maps marked with stopovers and breakfast breaks, and people posting requests or offers of bed and board. It was entirely self-organised, entirely spontaneous. And everyone involved in it has been changed by the experience.
The ‘convoi de la liberté’ may have been stymied, but this is not the end. A section of the public has gained the taste of solitary and making things happen together, and the extreme hostility with which their protests have been met has only strengthened their resolve.
Vive la liberté! Vive le convoi!