On Sunday afternoon, about 7,000 protesters gathered in the Place de la Republique in Paris. They were the remnants of a grand plan: between 300,000 to 1 million people marching for climate change justice in Paris on the day before the opening of COP21, the global summit that hopes to put the brakes on runaway carbon buildup. But because of the Nov. 13 slaughter of 130 mostly young people by ISIS terrorists in Paris, a nationwide ban was in place in France. It had prohibited the parade.
Despite that, the small protest of thousands began with shoes displacing marchers. In the Place de la Republique, the protesters formed a human chain, chanted, and challenged the police who had begun to gather around them.
By 5 p.m., when I got on the scene, the peaceful protest had turned bad. Blue lights were flashing, cops in riot gear and shields were in control, belligerence ruled. Somewhere behind the police ranks, members of one of the many NGO and civil groups involved in putting together the failed grand march under the banner of Coalition Climat21, had been cornered. Most were members of Alternative Liberal. Others came to their defense. There were confrontations: tear gas, clubs, arrests, mostly out of sight behind the police cordon.
In a cafe not far from the violence, a dismayed French activist told me, "The authorities do not want the image of a fascist COP21." She sat among members of Decroissance, a Degrowth movement founded in the 1970s and rooted in the conviction that environmental justice and economic equality are served best by shrinking the world economy rather than feeding it. Solemn and anxious, the members were huddled over beers, discussing what the hell to do next.
The last few weeks leading up to COP21 had not gone well for civic movements. Even before Nov. 13, the scale of the pre-COP21 grand march came under sustained pressure in France, where some felt it threatened to co-opt or capture too much attention from the negotiations. For a while it looked like Coalition Climat 21 might overshadow the opening of the main event, featuring negotiations between more than 170 nations with their 40,000 attendees and a gang of journalists numbering over 3,000.
The coalition's goal was clear: "to take advantage of the political and media exposure offered by the COP21 to organize and mobilize in great number in order to launch a strong and sustainable movement."
The ISIS attack kicked the people's coalition in the teeth. Then, on Nov. 29, some 24 activists in France were under house arrest. The protest with thousands of pairs of shoes up the street had ended with its supporters hauled off, clubbed if disobedient and added to an ever growing list of undesirables identified by the government of Francois Hollande.
"We are under disguised martial law," Monique told me in the cafe. (Monique is not her real name, as surveillance of activists is now the norm.) When I said that the police I'd seen 30 minutes earlier – shields flipped up, gathered around dozens of vans on streets – seemed relaxed, Monique scoffed, "They are like Pavlov's dogs! Say 'Charge!' and they attack."
Huddled at their table, the gray-haired members of Decroissance regretted the violence and the shrinking of civil rights, now made official but green washed and harshly controlled. There would be more arrests, they thought. More gleefulness in the growing ranks of French conservatives. More anger aimed at Muslims in France. And less resistance, especially in Paris.
The sole compensation was the fact that as Paris lay under the boot of the law, there were hopes for a second grand march. It might still take place on Dec. 12, after COP21. The original plans were for it to book-end the event, with the squashed event of Sunday evening opening it. Might the march of Dec. 12 not become huge? A global outpouring of support for not only climate justice but for the people's voice and values – not just the power of politicians, industry, police and the status quo.