For France’s Protesters, the Streets Are the Ultimate Stage

In large-scale theater and dance works, bodies moving in space have a momentum of their own; their collective power often feels like it could move mountains. Yet no number of monumental performances can compare to the enveloping force of tens of thousands of people, announcing as they did in Paris this week: “We are the show.”

Street protests — a time-honored French tradition — are generally not for the agoraphobic, but on Tuesday, the crowds were the biggest on record this century. France’s Interior Ministry estimated there were 1.28 million marchers, while trade unions said there were 3.5 million. In Paris, the crowds were so large that some protesters branched off on a different course, along the Left Bank.

The mountain the protesters were trying to move, for the sixth time in two months, was President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the legal age of retirement by two years, to 64. Yet beyond that particular policy, demonstrations are frequent enough in the country that they have taken on a ritualistic dimension, and often feature overtly theatrical elements designed to grab the attention.

In late 2019, the Paris Opera Ballet made international headlines by performing an excerpt from “Swan Lake” in the cold outside the Palais Garnier, to protest a previous attempt at a pension overhaul. The Comédie-Française, France’s most prestigious theater company, joined in with a Molière performance from the theater’s windows and balcony. (Perhaps to avoid a repeat, both institutions’ bespoke pension arrangements are excluded from this year’s proposed changes.)

Artists taking an active role in protests is nothing new in France. During the revolutionary events of May 1968, a number of theater venues were occupied, and performances were staged outdoors and at factories. One company from 1968 hasn’t stopped since: the Théâtre du Soleil. That egalitarian troupe, led by Ariane Mnouchkine, is such a stalwart of demonstrations that even protesters who rarely go to the theater look out for their creative street performances.

On Tuesday, its performers were easy to spot from afar, with a giant white puppet, known as Justice, that towered above the surrounding protesters. The slim figure was carried by four bearers on a palanquin, while the company’s actors animated its arms and billowing skirts from the sides. Blood was smeared on Justice’s solemn-looking face, which, like the rest of the puppet, was created by the Théâtre du Soleil’s own technical team.

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Mnouchkine herself, 84, kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. Justice was created in 2010, she said in an interview, for another strike against pension changes. The puppet has never appeared in a stage production, but she has seen her fair share of demonstrations, including in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015. “We immediately felt that people were happy to have a symbol to rally around that wasn’t just a giant sound system,” she said. “They also want something beautiful, something that carries emotion.”

At regular intervals, as the march plodded forward, Mnouchkine gave the signal for what she called “the attack of the crows.” Ten or so members of her company ran forward with black birds on sticks, ambushing Justice. To classical music and thunderous drum beats, Justice leaned forward, then back, fighting the crows off with a small sword; two assistant directors oversaw the struggle, directing the actors in real time. To the delight of protesters, Justice won every time, then took a celebratory spin and gave a bow.

Marching not far from the Théâtre du Soleil, a street theater company called Les Grandes Personnes had also brought two oversize puppets, both regulars appearances in their shows: Céline, an older white woman, and K.S., a young Black man. Brought to life by one person each, they bounced along to the sound of horns and cheering marchers, while a nearby performer held a sign that said: “I don’t want to die onstage.”

Yet artistic contributions to the march were fewer and farther between than I expected, an impression Mnouchkine confirmed. Two years of pandemic-related closures and cancellations have also left their mark, with fewer theaters willing to go on strike this week.

Bringing theatrical craftsmanship to strikes is “a tradition that is getting lost,” she said. While one of the performing arts’ main unions, C.G.T. Spectacle, brought a truck equipped with musical instruments and a sound system, the performances seemed a little subdued.

There was more attention to spectacle in the protest style of feminist groups like the Rosies, who draw their name from Norman Rockwell’s feminist icon Rosie the Riveter. Dressed in blue overalls, with makeup that made them look like overworked zombies, the women's collective has developed a small repertoire of choreographed protest songs, which anyone can learn through videos or workshops.

When I spotted them, dozens of Rosies were dancing to Gala’s 1990s hit “Freed From Desire,” which had become “Women On Fire,” with French lyrics about pension reform. From the back of a truck, two women led the motley group, which punched the air to the beat.

It was a joyful flash mob, but the strike’s greatest piece of theater remained the spectacle of so many bodies in the streets of Paris — wave after wave, subsuming any individuals, claiming the city as their stage for the day. Many chanted and held signs, but the vast majority simply moved as a collective.

Most of the time, there was a warm, carnivalesque atmosphere, but a crowd’s mood can also change at the speed of light. Nearly four hours into the march, some people around me suddenly stood still, then started walking backward. Something in the air had shifted, as if a coup de théâtre were about to change the narrative; press photographers near me took out their safety helmets.

Minutes later, when the sea of people parted, it became clear a group of black-clad protesters, their faces hidden, were ready to face off violently with the rows of police officers on the other side of the boulevard. I hurried back to a less volatile area. Later, when I reached the end point of the march, the Place d’Italie plaza was hazy with tear gas and surrounded by police officers, with people streaming confusedly into the few streets that weren’t blocked.

It was a staggering sight, like an immersive show gone out of control. Yet the march also brought out communal emotions, together with a sense of freedom and open self-expression, that even the best theater can struggle to replicate. As collective experiences go, I won’t forget this one any time soon.

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