May 3, 2023 - 10:00am


Poulet braisé is slang frequently heard or scrawled on walls at particularly violent riots in France. The word poulet — chicken — has been used to describe Paris police since the late 19th century, when they moved to new headquarters on the site of a former poultry market close to Notre Dame Cathedral. Less quaintly, braisé is a culinary term, in this case evoking officers being slowly roasted in a manner that causes them maximum pain, if not death.

The macabre threat became a reality during this year’s May Day protests on Monday, when at least four policemen were literally set alight. I watched as Molotov cocktails rained down on a unit of riot control officers in Rue Voltaire, close to Place de la Nation, in the city’s eastern 11th arrondissement.

Their heavy uniforms and body armour were all fire-proof, but one suffered second-degree burns to his exposed face and hands and ended up in a hospital intensive care unit. Prosecutors opened an investigation into “attempted murder of a public official”, while Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused so-called Black Bloc agitators of trying “to kill a police officer”.

Such disturbing scenes were replicated across the country, on the 13th official protest day against Emmanuel Macron’s decision to push the retirement age up from 62 to 64. The President bypassed a parliamentary vote to get the measure through, instead relying on a decree that opponents view as undemocratic, despite being in line with the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.

An incumbent French head of state is one of the most powerful leaders on earth and, since coming to power in 2017, Macron has not been afraid to show this off at every opportunity.

He has styled himself as a traditional “presidential monarch” — the description used by the creators of the Fifth Republic in 1958, when emergency powers were needed to deal with the crisis caused by the Algerian War of Independence.

They now allow Macron to force his will on a population that, he argues, has to work harder and rely less on the state, as it competes within an increasingly ferocious global economy. Despite opinion polls showing that at least 70% of the country is against Macron’s retirement reforms, he has pledged that there will be no U-turns, while also allowing millions to express their anger out on the street.

France is nothing if not a revolutionary republic, and the wily Macron knows this more than anybody else. Thus, mass dissent is always permitted but met with cohorts of paramilitary police — there were 5000 in Paris alone on Monday — along with water cannon, masses of teargas, baton charges, and stun grenades. When things get out of hand, and shocking pictures of a France seemingly descending into anarchy are broadcast around the world, Macron stands back from the fray and leaves his ministers to react.

Politicising the increased brutality is an obvious tactic and so, naturally, Darmanin blamed opposition politicians for the disorder. Commenting on the 460 police and gendarmes injured on May Day, and the 540 demonstrators arrested nationwide, the Interior Minister linked them all with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of the Left-wing NUPES (New Ecological and Social People’s Union) coalition in the Paris parliament. “Faced with this violence, the deafening silence of Jean-Luc Mélenchon makes him an accomplice,” Darmanin said.

So it is that the Macron administration speaks in the language of war — accusing those who oppose them of being collaborators and pledging that its own well-equipped combatants will prevail. The use of poulet braisé is an ugly consequence of the endless conflict, but dramatic attacks on the forces of law and order fit perfectly into the Macron playbook. Watching on, he will feel like he is winning.

Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.