Short story written in Paris, February 14, 2020
Lou, in her fifties, small, short hair always in the wind, is sitting on the evening of September 15, 2019 at the terrace of the Comptoir, a bar-brasserie located at the corner of Rue de la Tombe Issoire and Avenue René Coty. While waiting for her friends and Marc, her spouse, she recalls how her life has changed in recent months. Looking in the rear-view mirror, she recalls precisely the different stages that led her to tonight.
In January, there had been this famous Sunday lunchtime, at the Certa, the restaurant-bar run by Aymeric Assié, in which there was a good atmosphere. One finds there a first room in the form of a cosy lounge, then one crosses a second part in which there is the bar, in front of which a high table was installed for a dozen of guests. At the end, a third room, more intimate, with benches and small tables. According to his habit, Aymeric had endeavoured to find a table for Lou and Marc in this back room, he who nicknamed them the « lovers-walkers ». Indeed, they would come to lunch or dinner at the Certa, on the occasion of each of their fabulous « traverses of Paris » during which they would estimate on the state of the world and on the few means they had at their disposal to change the course of things.
They had left well after noon, and it had taken them more than an hour to cover the eight kilometres that separated them from this neighbourhood close to the Opéra Garnier, and they had arrived just as the resto-bar was beginning to empty, after having experienced, as they did every Sunday, a certain effervescence around the brunch offered by the restaurant owner and his team. As they had just placed their order, Lou’s gaze was drawn to a red stain on the bench on the other side of the now almost empty room. Her first thought was of a scarf that had been forgotten in that cold January. On closer inspection, it was more like a book. While waiting for « la salade bergère » and « le fish and chips », she had gotten up to fetch the book and reported the forgetfulness to the waiter. The waiter replied that the book had been circulating among the customers for several months already and that everyone who had read it had appreciated it, and brought it back each time to share it with other customers. She had then decided to borrow it in her turn. Back at her apartment, she had immediately started reading and had not slept all night, although she had a trip to Bordeaux the next morning. She had been captivated by the audacity of young Louise, the heroine of the book, and had only been able to put the book on the bedside table once it was finished, thinking that she might be able to take a little nap on the TGV the next day at dawn.
She got up at 5.15 a.m., as she often did when she went to the provinces for work. While she was taking a shower, Marc had prepared a smoothie and a thermos of tea for her to take away. She had kissed Marc and rode her old ochre bicycle, crossed the Place Denfert-Rochereau, took the cycle path of the Rue Froidevaux, along the Montparnasse cemetery to the Avenue du Maine. At the train station, it took her at least five minutes to find a place to park her bike, as Parisians are increasingly using this mode of transport. She then went to platform 4 for the departure of her train, presented the barcode on her mobile phone and went through the automatic doors that now allowed access to the platform. Once in her seat, she enjoyed her smoothie, thinking of Marc who had had to go back to bed, and started checking her emails. By one of these coincidences of fate, she had received an email from a certain Louise of the Alternatiba movement, an ecological movement she had joined a few months ago. She had already participated in some actions and some « alternative villages » organized by this citizen movement in favor of the climate. Louise’s email invited her to take part in a big mobilization planned for February.
She found Alternatiba’s non-violent mode of action rather relevant and was quite convinced of the value of this struggle since she had participated in COP 21. World-renowned scientific experts were constantly sounding the alarm. IPCC members were at a loss as to how to get the message across. The points of no return identified ten years ago had been reached (thawing of permafrost, deforestation in the Amazon, coral bleaching…). These effects, also known as positive feedback loops, were causing chain reactions that could one day lead humanity to an irreversible tipping point. Scientists were trying to warn of the need for a greenhouse gas reduction programme to avoid a catastrophe and nobody seemed to hear their cry of alarm. Joining the cry of the climate generation now seemed to be a must for Lou, as it was for the eight hundred and fifty thousand people who had already participated in one event or another organized by this movement.
Lou was trained in civil disobedience actions, which is essential for participation. She had thus followed a session in Montreuil during which she had learned about team cohesion, mastery, and the link with her partner. She had also learnt that one should never isolate oneself during actions and that there was always a date after the action to check that everyone was well. She had been advised to memorize the phone number of one or two trusted people who were not involved in the action. Then she gave them the contact details of the « legal team » to contact in case of problems or custody. Finally, she now had in her memory the telephone number of one of the lawyers acquired for the climate cause.
At first it seemed a bit folkloric to her, but as the months and the actions went by, she felt the tension rise. She had also discerned the hardness of the CRS’s looks and understood that they had no qualms. It was better to prepare for the worst even if you hoped for the best. She had also appreciated the content of the exchanges she had had with the other activists in training. A lot of consistency and respect, it was so good in this world of bullies. She had also met young people who, although they had studied at university, had decided to give up everything, at least for a while, to serve the climate cause. With Marc, she was already a little bit in touch with this milieu because together they had participated in several actions to prevent the construction of the airport of Notre Dame des Landes. During these weekends of action, they had met exciting people and discovered that it was quite possible to resist the « There is no alternative » regularly asserted by politicians. As a couple, they had become convinced that there were many alternatives. The exercise of degrowth was even rather a vector of happiness, of shared wealth, contrary to what the mercantile society tried to make everyone believe. At Notre Dame des Landes, they had also discovered the « No-marché » where everyone offered their own products and where people bartered or at least gave according to their possibilities. They had also seen with their own eyes that together, united, the climate activists were an immense force. Indeed, in 2017, with their tandem, they had joined an operation to block the four-lane road between Nantes and Rennes. At 7 o’clock in the morning, at the meeting place, there were only five or six people. By 11 o’clock, there were thousands of them and they had blocked the four-lane road for a good part of the day. In the evening, they had met at La Vacherie, a mythical place for Notre Dame des Landes, and had taken part in their first citizens’ assembly. Organic meals, vegan or not, couscous, Breton pancakes, vegetarian burgers or not, there was something for everyone. The atmosphere was really good. Everyone was invited to do their own dishes and it worked. In 2018, they had come back to participate in the « march of the sticks » and had made a commitment, like thousands of activists present, that they would not abandon this land to concrete. They enjoyed the wilderness side of this wetland site and had learned a lot about the protected species that live there. They had also learned from talking to airline pilots that the old airport was fit for purpose and were amazed to discover that it had been voted best airport in Europe twice just a short time before.
So, like Louise, the heroine of the book of possibilities, it was through working with activists that Lou became convinced that another world was truly possible. As she had read in Louise’s book, one action leads to another until the final victory. Indeed, Louise had participated, in her time, in small struggles to the point of committing herself body and soul during the Three Glorious Ones, for the freedom of the press. Louise had seen violence, but she had not hesitated to join the Parisians during the uprising of the summer of 1830. She had even lost some of her friends on the barricades between July 27 and 29, 1830. She had also lost her job and her fame, but for her, from now on, the end justified the means. The fight of the Parisians had caused the fall of King Charles X.
Lor, as for her, she had responded positively to Louise’s e-mail from Alternatiba and had therefore participated in the February action at the tanker summit. She liked it very much even though she admitted that she had had to find the motivation in the days before the action. She oscillated between doubt and excitement. Proud and happy to serve a cause in which she believed, but also aware of the risks she was taking and which she perceived in the eyes of Marc or his colleagues. Marc had even told her that one day he would have to pick her up at the police station. The action at the tanker summit was organised according to the usual procedure: register on the website, choose the level of risk involved, receive a confirmation SMS, on the morning of the action receive the SMS to inform of the meeting place. That morning, the appointment was made in front of a restaurant on Avenue de la Grande Armée. Lou was to meet one of the ten small teams of about ten people. Once they had found each other, the activists had formed pairs. Lou’s partner, Luis, was tall, very zen and friendly. In short, he was rather reassuring. She, on the other hand, had her eternal jovial smile. At 7.30 am, another text message inviting the small team to block the roundabout at the Porte Maillot. Everyone had put on their T-shirts (Alternatiba, ANV COP21 or Friends of the Earth) and a small multicoloured human chain was placed across the road. Lou’s team’s mission was to protect other activists who were organizing a giant dye-in in front of the Hyatt Hotel where the oil summit was to be held. Horns, insults, laughter, video, and the arrival of the CRS. The method of action is simple, it is about creating an effect of surprise, producing a moment of confusion in the consciousness and producing images to alert the media and the general public. In the moments when it heckles the loudest, a smile from his partner, a gesture, encouragement and convictions take over. Sharing a pair of gloves when it’s cold, a thermos of tea or a biscuit are all precious little supports to stand up to the CRS. At the end of the allotted time, quickly retreat to a subway station a little further away to take stock and then everyone can go about their business. Lou could then get on with his life, the metro to go to work, being neither quite the same nor quite different. Proud to have succeeded and conscious that next time they would be a little more virulent on the other side.
With his friends still missing from the Counter, Lou continues to recall the events that turned his life upside down.
In April, she had received another invitation to join a flash action that would take place on the day of the vote on the use of pesticides in the National Assembly. Appointment 7 o’clock in an alley in the Tuileries garden. By chance, she had found Luis, her partner, and they had decided to team up again. Flash action of ten minutes maximum, she was going to have to run and that was not her forte, unlike Luis. Going towards the National Assembly discreetly, without being spotted. Blocking the bridge for traffic, unfolding a large banner, waiting for the expected arrival of the media and taking a few pictures before the arrival of the CRS. Run out again, debrief like tourists in small groups of five or six people, get on with life and arrive at work around 9 a.m. to start a new day.
By June, the level of action had gone up another notch. Lou had participated with ANVCOP21, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in one of the largest citizen disobedience actions in France. That day, with about two thousand activists, they had managed to block four towers of the great business district of La Défense: the EDF Tower, the Total Tower, the Société Générale Tower and the Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition. The modus operandi was always the same: registration on the website and receipt of an sms for the meeting place. The day before the action, they had met to define the roles of each person: peacekeeper, mediactivist, stencil maker, leaflet distributors. On leaving, it was agreed that everyone would keep the secret of the action until the next day in order to keep the surprise effect. To this end, everyone would only be informed of the location of the action the same morning. Lou had a first meeting at about 8 a.m. next to the Arc de Triomphe, then the activists went in small groups of three to the Defense, pretending to be employees of the business district. They then prevented the employees of the four towers from entering their workplace: some had enjoyed a Friday off while others were furious. Along with the other activists, Lou had been denouncing « the Republic of Polluters » all day long. Together, they had called for an awakening of consciences for political change. The day had been a great success, there had been a concert by HK Saltimbanque and another by Kalune. Some of the employees of the towers, after having exchanged with the militants, had finally joined them. Lou had returned in the evening, exhausted, but very happy to have been able to lead the action from beginning to end. As with every action, everyone could choose the level of risk they wanted to take. As a general rule, Lou opted for low to medium risk. As a public servant, her main fear was of jail time. It wasn’t the jail term itself that scared her, but rather the risk of losing her job. Being no longer a young person, it would not be so easy for her to find a job or retrain very quickly.
From July, there had been this last proposal to participate in actions that were this time a little more exposed. They were aimed at denouncing the double stance taken by the President of the Republic, who set himself up as a defender of the climate on the international scene, while taking only contradictory decisions for France, despite the climate and social emergency. Each of the actions proposed by the climate movement consisted in taking down the official portrait of the President in town halls, to show him his lack of commitment. One portrait, then two portraits, then ten portraits had already been taken down. Lou received reminders, but she hesitated and procrastinated because of the risks. It was by recalling the reading of the book of possibilities that she had finally made the decision to take part in this final action. It was highly likely that it would end in police custody, and the penalties were much greater this time. One morning in July, five activists, including Lou, entered the town hall of the 15th arrondissement. They were to attend a meeting on composting in Paris. Everything was well organized and during the meridian break, they came out with the portrait of the President. They were proud as they walked down the steps of the town hall and then the CRS arrived: 24-hour police custody with interminable interrogations. Then there were months of waiting for the trial finally scheduled for 15 September. We had to face the looks of colleagues and family. Lou was proud, even if at times she doubted herself. She was not at all sure of the outcome of the trial and feared most of all for her job. She remained serene in spite of everything, with the conviction that she had done something that could well change the course of human life. And then that morning in September, the trial had finally begun. Hundreds of people had come to the courthouse to support the activists, which had warmed her heart. Finally, the time for the verdict had arrived: « The dropouts are relaxed, the government’s climate inaction is acknowledged. The activists prosecuted for stealing in meetings following the President’s portrait dropout are relaxed in favour of the state of necessity for legitimate reasons ». This is a great victory for the climate movement. This is a historic decision.
Marc and friends finally arrive at the Counter. Lou can now celebrate this victory with dignity, and be moved by the thought of Louise’s victory, a few centuries earlier, without which she would never have had the courage to go so far.
Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)