Editor’s note: This column is from one of the writers who will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs from Tuesday night through Friday. For details about the conference, go to stpetersburgconferenceonworldaffairs.com.
For better or for worse, I have spent the past 30 or so years living in the heart of Paris near a number of French government ministries. For the better? There is good neighborhood policing. For the worse? Living near government ministries means demonstrations, lots of them.
I have seen them all go by. The striking transport workers heading for the transportation ministry, the striking teachers heading for the education ministry. Just generally angry citizens heading for the prime minister’s office. Returning home one day a few years ago, I found my route blocked by police. “Who is it this time?” I asked an officer. “Retirees on strike,” he replied, without a trace of irony.
Paris is world famous for its strikes and demonstrations. It’s in the French DNA. This city issues more than a thousand demonstration permits each year, meaning, an average of about three demonstrations per day. The right to strike is specifically enshrined in the French constitution, and the right to demonstrate was established in the 1789 citizens bill of rights.
Most of the demonstrations over the years have been noisy and chaotic, but usually, because they are organized by unions or associations, they have a certain discipline about them. They usually start and end on time, more or less, and stay on the route designated by authorities, more or less. But lately that has changed.
Lately, some of the demonstrators have become wild and unruly ugly and violent. You’ve probably seen the scenes on television. Starting with the “Yellow Vest” movement more than a year ago and continuing with the recent protests against the government’s attempts at pension reform, there has been wanton destruction of public property, banks and businesses. The running street battles between the demonstrators bent solely on mayhem, and police have resulted in injuries on both sides, and even several deaths.
What’s apparent as well, is the way the extreme violence here is mirrored elsewhere. Hong Kong, Khartoum, Caracas -- you name it, there seem to be more and more nasty confrontations going on practically everywhere. In fact, the British-based, risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft calculates that 47 countries “have witnessed a significant uptick in protests” in 2019.
And while the root cause of each may be completely different, the means and methods are similar, and far more difficult for authorities to contain now than in the past.
In Iran, for example, during the 1978 revolution, my journalist colleagues and I witnessed incredibly blood-curdling displays of street violence when representatives of the shah were literally torn limb from limb. But the rage came only after months of cyclical confrontations with police. In theory, authorities had time to find solutions that might have stopped them.
But these days, time frames are much shorter. There is no longer the need for seething anger to slowly build to a boiling point for a situation to get out of control. A single disturbing video put up on social media is enough to spark a revolution, as it did in Tunisia in 2010.
What’s more, social media instigators can organize a “flash mob” in a matter of minutes. The “black bloc” radicals in Paris, responsible for much of the violence during and after recent demonstrations, have out maneuvered the riot police by simply posting their next gathering place on encrypted social sites and then heading to the designated spot to join others interested in rioting. It hasn’t happened in France, but in Iran, India, and many countries in Africa and South America, governments have had to resort to shutting down the internet to try to curb protests.
The social media have also permitted something else -- leaderless movements. The “Yellow Vests” constantly insisted that no one spoke for the movement and everyone spoke for the movement. There was a similar refrain from protesters in Hong Kong. Lack of a leader can work for activists, who team up via the internet with others of like minds to form groups which are essentially anonymous, something that complicates government efforts to negotiate solutions to grievances because there is no one who can speak for the movement.
The other day in France, one of the non-leader-leaders of the “Yellow Vests” conceded that, “In order to change the system, you have to enter the system." It was refreshing to hear after 15 months of weekly protests. While the movement continues here, perhaps because of that insight, it has subsided for the moment. But there is no sign of similar perceptiveness elsewhere. Indeed, Verisk Maplecroft predicts that turmoil around the globe “is set to continue unabated in 2020.”
Jim Bittermann is CNN’s Senior International Correspondent based in Paris.