X Close

How the Black Blocs seized French streets A new wave of anarchist violence is threatening the country

The new French revolutionaries. Credit: Jean Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty

The new French revolutionaries. Credit: Jean Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty


December 16, 2020   6 mins

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 GrĂ©gory 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.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

john_lichfield

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

55 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
bootsyjam
bootsyjam
3 years ago

Weird. It’s almost as if there is some well organised and well financed political force that is managing to organise similar supporters across the Western World. And yet our modern media seems to try to ignore this angle, a bit like stories involving under age working class white girls.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago
Reply to  bootsyjam

#Soros

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago
Reply to  bootsyjam

I can believe that meme theory explains how people in farflung parts of the world can adopt the methods and dress of each other in a digital age. And it’s relatively inexpensive to obtain the means of breaking glass and smashing up shops. And anarchists and enforced boredom us probably a bad combination.

But it’s probably a dangerous mistake to rule out some kind of organized support structure prodding them on.

bootsyjam
bootsyjam
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Of course. We see norms of dress all over the place, it’s how people display what tribe they belong to.
But when you are able to co-ordinate and organise protests with legal representation, first aid officers, photographers and friendly media reporting, along with the strange lack of action by politicians in charge then it does look rather odd.

See how lockdown protests are dealt with, and how these protests are reported and how ‘organised’ they are. Very different indeed.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago
Reply to  bootsyjam

I mean, you can copypasta the kind of organizational structure they’re using. The legal defenses are mostly crowdfunded, the “medics” are trained via manuals published online (based on information in anarchist manuals published via Xerox and distributed on college campuses years ago), and it doesn’t take a puppet master for people to figure out that breaking cameras of unapproved journalists and demanding that if they do intend to have journalistic access, they’d better be sympathetic to their cause (or else). And politicians are largely just showing their cowardness by trying to curry the mobs favor lest they be next.

My issue with the puppet master theory is that this doesn’t benefit anyone, and any entities with money and power enough to provide material support would see that. It looks like an organic quagmire to me.

Not to bend an old saw, but as I see it the only conspiracy that makes sense to me is Putin. In 2016 people framed that story as Putic taking direct control of American democracy. That was not the case, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t run a disinformation campaign to nudge our democracy. Where I diverge from my former leftie friends is that I don’t believe he was necessarily trying to get Trump elected. He was just trying to sow discord in our system to limit are ability to organize opposition to his goals. And if that’s the case, I don’t believe he would have stopped there. Or for that matter started. I think he has nudged and is still nudging these protests with a decentralized, cell-based manipulation campaign that is merely planting a bad idea here, a bad idea there, and stoking preexisting flames in discrete and subtle ways.

Remember back about twenty years ago when people used to virally post unfactual and poorly written Pravda stories online? After awhile the internet started to catch on that this was not reliable news. Later Pravda tried to claim that they were a parody site (just without any jokes), but I think that was an experiment that Russia was conducting on the ability to manipulate opinion online. And they don’t seem to have stopped doing this. There are fake viral cooking technique videos in the past few years that have been traced to Russia (check out Anne Reardon’s How To Cook That YouTube channel for her research and debunkings.) Again this is an experiment to see what people can be made to believe. But I don’t think the knowledge gained from this has been used to favor any party in particular. It has been used to pit us against each other so we aren’t looking at what Putin is doing to take back former Soviet territories.

I may be out on a limb on this, but I don’t think it’s too irrational or far fetched.

bootsyjam
bootsyjam
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Hahaha call something a conspiracy theory to discredit it. Well done. And then talk about the whole Russian collusion with a straight face. Do yourself a favour and read what Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have to say on that particular subject. You might learn something.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

one word, Soros

jim payne
jim payne
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Of course, your later part in your comment, mention money and power people. But there are organisations that love to de-stabilise democratic countries. But for all that, an interesting comment.

peterdebarra
peterdebarra
3 years ago
Reply to  bootsyjam

… oh ! … a surprise reference to the ongoing Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford, Telford etcetera Anglo-child rape-gangs flourishing amongst the Asian incomer clans in these and 35 other towns where that curse has been tolerated … the supposedly sainted Jo Cox – nearby constituency – didn’t lift a finger : wrong sort of victims, right sort of protected perps.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  peterdebarra

Not to mention no prosecutions for FGM for over thirty years.

The French, to their eternal credit, were and are far tougher on this revolting practice.

‘Our’ excuse (Social Services, Police, & CPS) was “Oh it’s cultural we mustn’t interfere” Pathetic!

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

the more that violence is tolerated, the more violence there will be. That’s basic human behavior. Eventually, there will be death. There were dozens of murders across the US after the BLM crowd started rioting. Ironically, the victims were almost exclusively black but none of those lives seemed to matter much, not even the ones of children.

regnad.kcin.fst
regnad.kcin.fst
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Absolutely. Death counts in big cities like Minneapolis, the epicenter of the Floyd riots, have hit new highs. And the response from city councils? Cut funds for the cops. Of course, the cops did very little during the riots to actually arrest rioters. Many many stories of cops sitting on their fat butts watching rioters trash and loot. But you do need cops.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

The problem is that when the police arrested people in Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis, the very left-wing prosecutors and judiciary etc simply released them back on to the streets. Arresting them became pointless.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Wasn’t it true though that those lives didn’t seem to matter much in those locations even before the riots? In places where mob violence was tolerated, some lives are and have always been politically expendable. But there are lots of places in the US where 1) rioting isn’t tolerated 2) will be prosecuted and and 3) lives are considered to be worth more from a political perspective. Cities where rioters are not prosecuted are populated by people to whom that is acceptable. But it is not acceptable everywhere. France may be the same with differing attitudes towards mob riots in different locations.

Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
3 years ago

It’s astonishing how left-wing vandalism and violence is glamourised.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Sidney Falco

is it? The left is the same group that worked mightily to sanitize the likes of Stalin and Mao.

peterdebarra
peterdebarra
3 years ago
Reply to  Sidney Falco

… a smaller scaled version of the leftist failure to ‘have a problem’ with the millions killed by Mao, the millions by Pol Pot and by Red Stalin ” or to allow the proles to be educated about these. To mention them derives from WrongThink. An inherent failure in humanity, of course, as the end is all. How Hobsbawm would have loved this.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  peterdebarra

Even the Times gave a fawning obituary to the monster Hobsbawm, who was incidentally a regular member of the dinner table where the Milliband boys grew up, (their father being a Marxist Scholar) and they remembered him fondly.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Sidney Falco

Look at ‘Urban 75 Forums’ for the biggest anarchist talk forum. I get banned from it right away, so watch your un-wokeness or you are gone. But if you wish for a dark canyon to rant into this is a good one. Also you get to see some anarchists ‘in the wild’.

regnad.kcin.fst
regnad.kcin.fst
3 years ago

Shopkeepers need to arm themselves with clubs, put on masks, and respond in a coordinated manner. By breaking knees.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Look up the Korean shopkeepers in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots…

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Or Turkish Cypriot shopkeepers in Green Lanes during the 2011 yob riots.

Jay Williamson
Jay Williamson
3 years ago

Has anybody seen a man called Soros, who funds many of these ‘movements’?!

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Jay Williamson

He is safety tucked away in a gated community somewhere far from mob violence.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

It is clear that the pros of the Black-Bloc are a problem, as is non-enforcement of laws against willfully destructive acts, but I am stuck on trying to figure out what an “anti-establishment pony tail” is…

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

A pony tail on a man?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

Don’t you mean a t**t

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

“My little pony tail”

jim payne
jim payne
3 years ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

Haven’t had a haircut since February . My kids all think that’s what I am aiming for. Fat chance . See E R. below!

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

An antiestablishment ponytail is something that hasn’t existed since the early 90s.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
3 years ago

Even worse, it should be “Les Blocs noirs”, the Académie will be apopleptic.

Phil Bolton
Phil Bolton
3 years ago

Anarchy simmers just below the surface. I recall the situation in 2011(I think) in the UK when a man was killed by police in Tottenham and the next thing we know there are riots, fires and looting all over the country. Our civil society is a fragile beast that can easily and quickly get very ugly indeed.

juliabaytree
juliabaytree
3 years ago
Reply to  Phil Bolton

Yes, but only if the “wrong” person is killed. I remember a Scotsman shot in the back in the 90s for carrying a table leg home.
Someone in a pub apparently said to police that an irishman was in there with a weapon in his bag. He wouldn’t stop when shouted at, so was shot. No riots then; hardly reported in fact.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago
Reply to  juliabaytree

As I recall, the poor guy was guilty of being deaf (which is why he did not respond to the police challenge) and carrying a table leg in a plastic bag.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  juliabaytree

Can your recall his name?

peterdebarra
peterdebarra
3 years ago
Reply to  Phil Bolton

… in October 1985 a black crowd in Tottenham, North London, hacked PC Keith Blakelock to death – the Wikipedia entry incorporates a Forensic diagram indicating the 40 machete wound locations.

Peter Lockyer
Peter Lockyer
3 years ago

Another great and informative article. So many young people suffering from feelings of despair greatly exacerbated by COVID. Worrying times indeed.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Lockyer

Well I don’t think this lot have any genuine feelings of despair. As the writer says, they are generally white and quite privileged – just like the Antifa mob in the US. For the most part they are just ‘larping’ (live action role play).

There are many people right now who have genuine feelings of despair, be they moral, intellectual or material. (I despair at the lack of morality and intellectual capacity displayed across the West’s governing and corporate classes, although I have no particular material despair). However, I don’t go out smashing up shop windows and bus shelters.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It is existential despair. Anarchy stems from this.

jim payne
jim payne
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Amazing how these days people in despair, having mental problems etc. Baby Boomers and earlier were just “pissed off”.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Lockyer

How many unemployed where needed to kick start Adolph & Co?

Teo
Teo
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Not the poor unemployed but the bachelor underemployed – raging while waiting on the state to pick up the bill for their parents social care so they can squander their inheritance.

ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

I think the increased following of these BlackBloc protesters could also be a backlash against the increase in the state trying to parent their populations like the increasing number of parents do with their ‘helicopter parenting’ their own children. Following Corona restrictions with the likely destitution and isolation, I would expect to see a lot more of this need for an outlet of anger and resentment..

Jay Williamson
Jay Williamson
3 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

I think you’re wrong. These hate-filled fascists have been on the ‘march’ for a long time, now.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago
Reply to  Jay Williamson

could be both !

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

France has suffered from very high youth unemployment for a very long time. This has top be a significant factor. I remember the early 1980s well and we are still living with the fallout. There is nothing more corrosive than high unemployment

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago

This unemployed youth is totally the cause of the MENA chaos and destruction of the region. Young men need to work to dissipate their energies or they turn to antisocial or self destructive ways. In the Islamic lands the youth told their duty is to raise a family, but have no work, or prospects of affording a family are unbelievably destructive. I am always amazed at the peacefulness of Sub Saharan Africa as they are totally in this demographic. I think much of Mexico, Central and South America, is from exactly this same thing, the unemployed young man.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

That’s almost certainly the real motivation on a subconscious level. But I don’t think they understand it that way.

Frederik van Beek
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago

The riots are there because of the despair pumped up by corona-measures. If you want less riots than stop spreading stupid fear for some meaningless virus.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago

The current title of this article (13,30 GMT) is “How the Black Blocs seized French Streets – a new wave of anarchist violence is threatening the country”

Only 6 people have commented so far . I’m curious too see if there’s a new headline by close of play.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

??

greg waggett
greg waggett
3 years ago

A proper war would sort them out. Sharpish.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  greg waggett

Against us over Fishing in the English Channel perhaps.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
3 years ago

“Down with capitalist bus shelters !”
It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so pathetic.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago

‘Black’ and ‘Noir’ do seem to have taken on negative connotations this cycle, no? Words mean something.