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.
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.
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