The Storming of the Bastille
by Zoe Hamilton
Dear loyal readers,
I would first like to apologize for the lack of posts this semester. It was one of my goals to write more often and instead I have fallen on the face of the blogosphere. But I am here now with many things to write about as this semester has been absolutely packed with new and interesting experiences. I will write a more detailed post later about coming back second semester in Paris and at Sciences Po as well as some of the more educational challenges I have had here. But the real motivation for this post is an experience I had yesterday. I can confidently say that it is one of the most interesting things I have seen since arriving in France. One of my classes this semester is on the elections that are beginning to really heat up here this spring. In that class we were all assigned to a group to report on a political party or candidate each class. Being more interested in the extreme groups than the central ones I decided that I should probably choose to either follow LePen (extreme right wing, anti-immigrant etc) or Mélenchon (extreme left, calling for a 6th Republic). In the end I went with the left wing. Communist events, in my mind, would be a much more exciting and idealistic experience (even if I do not agree with all the proposed changes) than xenophobic rallies calling for the expulsion of North African communities. And right I was. As part of our reporting to the class we are highly encouraged to attend debates, events and meetings of the candidates. At Sciences Po we are very lucky because many of these events take place on campus.
Yesterday was the “march to take the Bastille” for Mélenchon. So around 2 o’clock I went with a few friends to Nation expecting a few hammers and sickles as we marched for la 6ème République. What we found went beyond anything I was expecting. The place de Nation was packed with people dressed in red, communist flags and copies of the Communist Manifesto. It was a fascinating and foreign sight to behold. We walked around picking up free stickers, signs and flags preparing for the march on the Bastille. The rain even cleared for a little and the sun came out. Really what more can you ask from a Sunday afternoon than a little music, communism and sunshine?
By three o’clock we still had not begun marching and we were confused as to what was taking so long. Once we starting walking we realized it was the sheer number of people. The wide boulevards of Paris were not big enough to contain the 120,000 people that had come (they were expecting about 30,000) to support a new constitution for the extreme left. At several points we walked along the side and as we passed up ahead you could see the political issues represented by the different interest groups singing and hoisting their banners into that not-quite-yet-spring air. First we would pass the feminists proudly sporting red face paint, then the education groups chanting for immigrant rights, then the environmentalists before arriving at the theater commune of Paris. Quite the mix of idealists and dreamers. All down the street, leftist banners and stickers plastered the metro stops and lampposts.
After about an hour of marching we arrived at the Bastille. I am pretty sure I will remember the sight for the rest of my life. The place de la Bastille was overflowing. It was nearly impossible to move through the air filled with chanting and energy. I think campaigns are my favorite part of the political process because everyone is still so sure of their cause, untainted by game to stay in office, and so optimistic about the future (even a candidate like Mélenchon who has no chance of actually winning). I don’t think you would find this sort of energy with any other candidate here in France either. The left is bound to be more idealistic than the extreme right (which is mostly made up with the frustrated and nationalistic working class) and more energetic than the moderate middle.
In the center of the place the giant monument was covered in people who had climbed up in order to get a better view. Naturally, this is where we headed. There was a giant spiked fence to climb but everyone was helping everyone else to get over (gotta love that communal spirit) so it was not too hard. We decided against climbing up on the actual monument as it is super high and scary (people would raise their hands above their head and people monument would pull them up to safety…in other words if it was in the US it would be a lawsuit waiting to happen and cops would be all over the place. Being in France I did not see one police officer the whole day). We climbed onto the fence to watch Mélenchon speak. As far as we could see “Front de Gauche” and crowds spread out. People lit flares and chanted “Rés-is-tance!”
Mélenchon was excellent. He is a wonderful orator and I am shocked to say I agreed with almost everything he said. I am not sure about the economic policies but socially I think he is absolutely on point. The one thing that shocked me is the call for a new constitution and the 6th Republic. I think this is because in the US we hold our constitution on a pedestal. Despite the founding fathers intention of this document to be a living, changing policy to adapt with the times, we hold it in such a sacred position that if it would be absolutely unthinkable for a presidential hopeful to call for a new one. So I think I agree with the idea of a more flexible system that changes as there is a need for it (as there clearly is in Europe at the moment). However, I am not sure I agree with the proposed protectionist changes Mélenchon advocates. In any event his ideals are beautiful and his oration style equally so. As the Marseillase broke out at the end with French flags waving around me I felt truly touched by this strange and impassioned political system.
All in all, really an amazing experience that I will never forget. I was part of a revolutionary movement at the Bastille! Vive la France! Vive la 6ème Republique! (And there is your word of the day!)
A bientôt! Bisous,