December 16, 2020

The scene is a womenswear shop in the centre of Bordeaux at the end of last month. Shoppers — young women, teenagers, mothers and children — are enjoying the easing of France’s second Covid-19 lockdown.

A demonstration passes on the street outside. It is protesting against police violence and a proposed new security law. Two young women break away from the demo and scrawl on the shop window with marker pens. One, who tries unsuccesfully to hide her face, writes: “Je vomis sur vos normes.” (I vomit on your standards).

A young man, whole face masked, approaches and smashes the window with a blunt object. Another young man, tall, blonde, unmasked, aristocratic-looking but with hair in an anti-establishment ponytail, gazes through the window and gives a gesture of contempt to shoppers and staff.

Someone, or possibly more than one person, kicks in the whole shop front. There is flying glass, screaming, crying, panic, nervous laughter…

The video has gone viral — but this outbreak of pointless violence isn’t an isolated one. Many Saturday afternoons in many big cities in France have been punctuated by such episodes — ever since the beginning of the Gilets Jaunes movement two years ago. And even before.

Police are stoned or attacked with Molotov cocktails; cars are burned or turned over; bank and shop windows are smashed; bus-shelters are destroyed. The perpetrators claim that they target only “symbols of capitalism” but seem to have a particular animus against capitalist bus shelters, which are mostly used by older and poorer members of the population.

The Covid pandemic did force a brief hiatus in this French anti-capitalist Saturday Afternoon Fever. But since the easing of the second lockdown, they’ve resumed.

Groups of hooded people — mostly in their 20’s or 30’s, mostly male and mostly white — are again invading organised protests. Some are full-time revolutionaries. Others are weekend hobbyists, indulging in a kind of political football hooliganism. Some — but not all — are highly-educated young people from relatively well-off backgrounds.

It is customary to refer to them as “les Black Blocs”, after an anarchist movement which began in Germany. But it’s a misleading name. “Black Bloc was a method, not a movement,” explains Professor Olivier Cahn, a French criminologist. “The original idea was to create a block of black-clad, anti-state protesters in the street who would symbolically, and sometimes violently, dispute the right of the state to control the street or the whole of society.”

“It started with a German anarchist movement in the 1970s and the approach has been adopted and adapted in many countries, from Italy to the United States. But there was no organised movement and no one thinking head behind it.” Much of the activity in France that has been attributed to the Black Blocs is something rather different: “They’re disparate groups of the ultra-Left who copy some of the Black Bloc methods but also go far beyond them”.

It has similarities to the Antifa movement in the States. But it flourishes more in France than any other European country. That’s because Black Blocs, and those who imitate them, are political cuckoos. They always infiltrate the protests of others. Since France is a country where politics goes to the street more readily and more often than any other democratic country in the world, there’s more habitat here for them than anywhere else. As Grégory Joron, a French police union official, told the television documentary Police attitude: “If you rally 20,000 people for the cause of frozen beans in France today, you will get Black Blocs…They are professional rioters.”

They are, in their own terms, a very successful phenomenon — arguably the most successful political movement in France at the present time.

They accuse capitalism, the state and especially the police of being violent. Through violence, they oblige or trap the state and police into acting violently. They kindle the impression — both in France and abroad — that France is a “repressive” state, ungovernable, spinning out of control. (France has many problems but it is not spinning out of control.)

The many Gilet Jaunes protests were frequently invaded by Black Blocs or people who copied their methods. I was in the crowd on the Champs Elysées on 16 March 2019 when a group of 150 or so self-satisfied, black-clad young men appeared from nowhere and started smashing and burning restaurants and news kiosks.

Some of the more peaceful, rural or outer suburban Yellow Vests were disgusted. Others applauded or joined in. The police were criticised for not stopping the violence that day. On other weekends, police were criticised (sometimes justifiably) for being too violent and too indiscriminate in their response.

Many of the original, disparate, apolitical rural or outer suburban yellow-clad protesters became disgusted by Black Bloc and Gilet Jaune violence, and by the violent police response. After the spring of last year, the original, rural Yellow Vests mostly melted away.

But here is a paradox. The violence also, briefly, made the Yellow Vest movement more powerful than it would otherwise have been; more reported abroad; more worrying to the government; more damaging to President Macron’s reputation.

The same has been true of the marches against the new security law in the last few weeks. The demos would have received little publicity in France — and none abroad — if they had remained as peaceful as their organisers intended. When cars burned and banks were attacked in Paris on December 5, radio and newspaper headlines often gave the impression that this was “anti-Macron” violence or violence provoked by police violence.

Organisers complained that the government and police had deliberately allowed the Black Blocs to rampage in order to discredit the demos. The hard left, La France Insoumise party, one of the organisers claimed that the Black Blocs were the “objective allies of Macron”. Far-Right commentators, including senior officials of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, hinted that they believed “les black blocs” were largely government-inspired agents provocateurs.

Last weekend, police in Paris waded in to a successor march from the beginning. They penned the marchers. They arrested anyone who looked as though they might be about to create a “black bloc”. Random violence was greatly reduced. Capitalist bus-shelters were left alone.

La France Insoumise, and part of the French media complained, without missing a beat, that the police had been over-aggressive and too violent. Here was proof, they said. that Macron’s France was become authoritarian, lurching to the Right…

In other words, the Black Blocs — whoever they might be — had won while seeming to lose. But who are they and what do they want?

Their methods and organisation are so deliberately opaque — or vacuous — it’s impossible to say. Just look at their slogans:

“Who we are is not so important as what we want. And we want everything, for everyone.”

Or

“Before the protest, there is no black block; after the protest the black block ceases to exist.”

Those members who do speak to the press tend to be relatively recent recruits on the fringes — people with specific grievances, not necessarily representative of the core anarcho-nihilist, black-bloc philosophy. One unnamed woman who was recently interviewed by The Local website said she had joined in violent Black Bloc protests in Paris for the first time this month. She complained that she had lost her restaurant work because of what she regarded as the unnecessary pandemic lockdown.

“So there you are, locked inside because of a ‘flu, having to wear a mask for no reason, and you aren’t allowed to say anything,” she said. “On top of that, you’re not getting paid and the bills start piling up. So anger begins to rise. Hatred rises. There is something within that needs to get out. I told myself that I need to get all that hatred out of my body, otherwise I would implode.”

The core Black Bloc activists, however, rarely speak to the press. They tend — like the 1970s German originals — to come from well-off, well-educated backgrounds. Many are students (which in France can cover ages 18 to 25). Some live in squats and live on casual work. Others have well-paid jobs. One 29-year-old man arrested in 2018 was a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Centrale and earned 50,000 euros a year as a business consultant.

They retain mystique partly because the most hardened of them seldom get arrested. There are, according to French intelligence, no more than 800 pure members. But the base is broadening.

“It now includes people of more working-class origin,” according to Cahn. “There are recruits from the left-leaning, anti-fascist football hooligans who have traditionally occupied one end of the Parc de Princes during Paris Saint-Germain matches.” (A hard-right, racist group occupies the other end.).

A clear pattern of motivation remains difficult to establish though. There are some people who have reasons to feel betrayed by the state and the “system”. There are others who believe in the pure, original anarchist philosophy of a “creative destruction” of the state to liberate the oppressed human spirit. There are also “wannabes” who belong to the many, mutually-hating tribes and sub-tribes of the French ultra-left.

One French academic, the sociologist Gaston Bouthol, has suggested that “blackblockery” is a post-modern plague, driven by surplus testosterone and mental or physical under-employment.

“Many active young males are unemployed or spend their lives passively in front of computer screens, not always sure whether their work is any use to anyone,” he said. “Of course, they could take up a sport or paint-balling … but that doesn’t have the smell of reality which makes the adrenaline flow… And so they become fanatics who constantly seek out the strong sensations of street protest.” This doesn’t explain the increasing presence of women among their ranks though.

We do know, though, that they are a self-fulfilling prophesy. They discredit mainstream politics; they discredit the state; they discredit the police; they also discredit the moderate or peaceful movements to which they parasitically attach themselves.

They are, for now a marginal phenomenon. But they are also a dangerous — and a growing — one. As disaffection increasing amid the economic rubble covid leaves behind, the ranks will doubtless grow further. And no one — not the government, not the media, not the legitimate peaceful forces of opposition — knows how to break the destructive spiral in which black-bloc violence appears to win even when it loses.