Protests, a.k.a ' Manifs', are in no short supply in France. The Paris news photographer is well versed in the traditional drizzle-soaked trade-union protest march from Place de la Republique to Place de la Bastille. In fact, expert level is reached when one can accomplish the aforementioned march, walking the full route backwards, undercooked 'merguez' sausage in hand, all while shooting pictures. So commonplace has this sausage-wielding, monotonous slogan-chanting, trade-unionist march become, that Paris news photographers pine for the edgier, more action-packed type of protest. One such type of manif has eluded me for four years now: the firefighters' protest.
A rare event in Paris (Paris and Marseille firefighters are military, and can't legally protest), firefighters' protests, disputing labor agreements, traditionally end in mayhem - this due to their peak physical condition, inherent dislike of law enforcement, and riot-proof uniforms (in the past, French riot police have tried to subdue firefighters with tear-gas only to realize that
their gas-masks were superior to the standard police-issued ones). As (bad) luck would have it, the few times such protests have taken place in Paris, I was away on assignment elsewhere. On this occasion, however, the stars aligned: I would finally get to cover the firemen in action.
Place de la Nation, 12h30 - An armada of buses from the French provinces arrived at Place de la Nation, and immediately began to pour out into the street over 300 uniformed firemen of questionable sobriety. The smell of cheap supermarket rum and generic beer quickly filled the air as the lads gathered around the Place. The official planned protest route was set to take the firefighters across Paris to Place Denfert-Rochereau, a 2-hour march away - but the likelihood of them arriving at destination was slipping away with every beer bottle. Out of nowhere, the firefighters suddenly lit flares and took to the busy roundabout, blocking traffic. As police scrambled to re-organize the grid-lock of cars accumulating on the street, a small group of particularly
inebriated firemen climbed the statue in the center of the Place, and brandished revolutionary flags... depicting Che Guevarra for reasons I still can't explain.
13h00 - As I neared the monument to take the picture (seen above), a particularly
drunk firefighter approached me: "For a journalist, you look a lot like an undercover cop," he taunted me. To be fair, he had a point - sort of. In Paris, no protest takes place without at least one active division of CRS riot police, a nearby backup division on standby, and several dozen undercover officers mingling with the protesters. By 'mingling', I actually mean 'brutally standing out' thanks to their military-short hair, hiking shoes, pressed jeans, hooded sweatshirts, black jackets, and tactical backpacks full of riot-suppression gear. This of course, greatly resembles the average news photographer 'uniform'... It took 3 different press cards, my British passport - and a brief chat about this year's fishing season in his hometown on France's West coast - but the fireman was eventually convinced that I was not, in fact, a cop.
In the space of one hour, the firefighters had used more flares and orange smoke-bombs than would be seen in a full year's-worth of protests in Paris - a truly welcomed visual aid by the photographers present. A more
welcomed addition, however, were the large firecrackers exploding all around, as drunken firemen lobbed them at each-other, and at us journalists. As I kneeled down to take a picture (as seen above, taken by Reuters photographer
) I heard a 'fizzing' noise coming from between my legs. I looked down, only to find a lit firecracker the size of my forearm, seconds away from exploding. I had just enough time to get up and kick it a few feet away, before it detonated - much to the amusement of the firefighters. (Seen below, a picture I took from that angle, just before the firecracker)
We usually think of firemen as heroes and 'saviors', associating them with a sens of reliability and safety, calling on them when we are in peril. But this feeling rapidly dissipated when surrounded by 300 drunken flare-waving firefighters throwing lit firecrackers at eachother's faces. In this case, they seemed more intent on
causing peril. Also quickly dissipating were my hopes of a firemen-versus-police clash, as the majority of the protesters appeared too drunk to even figure out the direction of their protest march. Instead, they huddled together, in small groups, around their rapidly dwindling supply of alcohol, masked in a fog of orange smoke.
Place de la Nation was rapidly fading into an orange cloud, all to the soundtrack of firecrackers detonating, sirens and smashing beer bottles.
14h00 - Finally, the firefighters congregated behind their lead union truck, and set off on their protest
stumble across Paris. By now, an impressive gang of undercover police officers had amassed to herd the firefighters in the right direction. The march proceeded without incident, albeit loud and very smokey, for no more than 300 meters. At this point half of the firefighters decided to enter the adjacent fire-station to seek out a safe-haven to carry on drinking with their Paris-based comrades. The other half attempted to elude their undercover police chaperons, only to reach a dead-end street, and ended up teargassed back into line. As for myself and a good number of the Paris news photographers, we had chosen most unwisely, and were awaiting the protest march at an overpass further down the road. Only the
more sober protesters ever made it that far - of which there weren't many.
Hopefully another opportunity will arise within the next four years...
PS: The Guardian online edition used a picture in their '24 hours in pictures' section. Click here.
More photos & stuff at www.ianlangsdon.com