Author: Ella Speckhard
Location: Paris, France
My homestay in Paris is situated in the 11th arrondissement of Paris on Blvd Voltaire. This is a lovely neighborhood with lots of great places to eat, shop, and observe the “real” Parisian life away from the tourist traps. My host’s apartment is just a short walk away from Place de la Nation, a monument commemorating the square with the most active guillotines during the Revolution, as well as the Père Lachaise cemetery. This is the largest cemetery in Paris, a beautiful place to walk, and contains the graves of such famous people as Edith Piaf, Chopin, Oscar Wild, Jim Morrison, and the fictional character of Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Misérables. I’ve really enjoyed having easy access to these two spots; the cemetery is a lovely place to take a walk when things get overwhelming because there’s lots of trees and green space and it feels like a different world from the city that surrounds it. Living near Nation gives me access to a lot of different metro lines and makes getting around the city much simpler. However, what I didn’t know about this location is that it’s also central to the thing French people love most: protesting.
I receive regular emails informing me of different protests happening around the city so that I can try to avoid them. However, many of the protests pass right in front of my apartment so avoiding them is easier said than done. Luckily, I’m usually at school on the other side of the city when they take place so I’m not super inconvenienced, but I have witnessed a few and wanted to shine some light on what to expect from a protest in France.
The first protest I saw was one of the marches for the transportation strikes. It was early in the semester and I was interested to actually see something that I had heard so much about in my classes. I’ve never been to any marches or protests even in America, so I was a bit nervous. I shouldn’t have been though because it was basically just a boring parade with lots of signs. People came from all over France to participate so this was the largest protest I’ve seen so far, but I only caught the tail end of it, so I don’t have a great reference for how many people were marching. That evening during dinner my host turned on the news and we watched live footage of the protestors at their final destination, Place de la Bastille, and it was there that things got a little bit rowdy towards the end. We could hear the commotion in the distance, but luckily it didn’t affect our neighborhood at all. There were just a few fires from people burning their signs and people yelling at the police, but nothing violent or drastic.
The second protest I saw was a completely different story, and probably my most adrenaline-inducing experience abroad. It was a completely normal Tuesday afternoon and I was on my way home from classes, finally feeling confident in my routine. When I exited the station and went up the steps to the sidewalk, I could immediately sense that something was off. Cars were parked on the street so I couldn’t immediately tell what was happening, but I could see the sirens on top of police vehicles to my left. All I had to do was cross the street and walk for 20 feet and I would be home, but if I had been 30 seconds later getting off of the metro, I would’ve had to go somewhere else for the evening. I wasn’t sure if I should cross the street or not and hesitated for just a moment before the woman next to me decided to cross, so I followed her. When I stepped out into the street was when I saw a wall of police running my way, carrying their shields and batons. I jogged the rest of the way across the street to get out of their way and as I walked away from the commotion towards my apartment, I couldn’t help but turn around to see what was going on. People were stopped on the sidewalks watching, and as more and more police ran past, I truly felt like I was living out a movie scene. It was with the first blast of the tear gas cannon (I’m not really sure what the technical term for that is, but it felt like a cannon the way it shook the ground) that I snapped out of it and ran inside. Once I was inside, I felt comfortable watching things develop from the balcony, but only managed to get a few short videos because the tear gas was actually making my eyes itch even from 6 stories up. I was able to figure out that this wasn’t a transportation protest, but a protest of firefighters.
Although the video makes it seem pretty scary (and it was, I’ll be honest), I felt really lucky a few days afterward when I saw an article on social media about the other protests that the firefighters in Paris had done that week.
They stayed out on the street for about half an hour, and then the blasts I was hearing grew further and further away as the protest moved toward Place de la Nation down the street.
Finally, the most recent protest I’ve witnessed was extremely small, but loud. The group of marchers were led by a van with many speakers and a man yelling into his microphone about their cause. I’m not sure what they were protesting, but it’s amazing to think just how quickly I’ve grown accustomed to these types of events. I’ve only seen three in person, but they’re so deeply engrained into everyday life in France, and particularly Paris, that I didn’t even think twice when I heard the commotion on the street.
Hopefully I don’t run into any more protests where my safety is in question because that was a pretty intense experience, but I feel confident that I know the signs of a protest turned hostile and would be able to just turn in the opposite direction and find something to do until things settled down enough for me to go home. Inconvenient? Yes. But the French love their protests and so learning how to live with them is essential, especially where I’m living. Remember, priority number one when studying abroad is safety! Research where you’re staying before you arrive so that you’re able to prepare for the different facets of your neighborhood, for instance, the presence of a bunch of protests right in front of your apartment!