To get to grips with what's happening on the streets of Paris — and, now, every other major French city — the first piece of equipment required is a helmet. Preferably a motorcycle helmet but, in a pinch, a bike helmet will do. Anything to protect from flying projectiles, bat-wielding demonstrators and baton-equipped riot police.
Even better: find a balcony. High enough to be above the fray, something that offers perspective over the scene and permits observation of the charge and counter-charge, formation, dispersal and re-formation taking place below but, most important, also puts you out of range of the missile throwers, and most of the drifts of tear gas.
Thus on Tuesday, with a CBS news crew, I found myself on the fifth floor balcony of an elegant apartment overlooking the Place de la Republique, the finish point for the 3-mile march through Paris that began across town, on the other side of the Seine, at Place d'Italie. Watching with us was our host, Jerome Godefroy, a journalist with the French radio station RTL, who spent most of the last decade living and reporting in Washington and New York.
At the bottom of the square, marchers continued to arrive. Student organizers put the figure at 700,000. The police called it at 92,000, laughably low. (There is a very political and long battle for demonstration numbers in France. An example: in Marseille, also on Tuesday, police said 25,000 were on the streets. The students and unions said 250,000. As Godefroy said, "someone can't count").
However many, most of the marchers dispersed quickly and peacefully. Their numbers included students from some of France's most elite universities, now on strike for more than five weeks. Joining them were their older supporters; the grown ups, members of France's unions, a diverse lot including everyone from train drivers to archaeologists, and the rainbow colored factions of the French left. There were high school students too, some marching with their parents behind the banners of their Lycees.
Most of the march had a carnival atmosphere, led by rappers and be-bop artists, the signature tune "Generation Non Non," blasting out along the route. Godefroy laughed as we watched the red and orange flags of the Trotskyists parade along the perimeter. "Look, now you don't have to go to North Korea," he said.
Place de la Republique is a long rectangle. On the north side are the chateau-like living quarters for an elite police unit that provides diplomatic and presidential security. A treed park, with sandy boules courts dominates the center, bisected by an unfortunate statue representing the ideals of the Republic. Below us, the local MacDonald's had taken the precaution of boarding its windows and closing.
To our left, and at every point of entry to the square were lines of riot police, the CRS. They have quite a reputation for head-banging violence, but last night had been put on notice by Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, who told them the protests would be a test for them, asked them to remember that some of the demonstrators were very young, and ordered them to restrict their violence to the "casseurs" (literally, "the breakers," the widely-used French slang term for those protesters who resort to violence and vandalism. The French like to think that most of them come from the same immigrant-dominated suburbs swept by riots last fall).
From our vantage point on the fifth floor, it was clear that the police had a plan. Unlike the end of the demonstration last Thursday, which resulted in sustained and ferocious battles on the open Esplanade des Invalides that went on for hours, on Tuesday the police moved to divide groups of protesters, dispersing them from the square. No critical mass that could effectively confront the police built up.
Groups would gather, a chant would go up, bottles and stones would fly, the police would charge, everyone would scatter and, moments later, drift back together again, some of the action lost under the canopy of trees.
Firecrackers banged. A group that brought along concealed incendiary bombs arrived. Two or three Molotov cocktails exploded at the feet of the riot police. Tear gas canisters were fired. There were more charges, and in one of those skirmishes, a police officer was seriously hurt.
The police have several new tools: cameras to help them recognize known trouble-makers, enabling them to better plan how to seize them, and a kind of paint-ball gun, which fires indelible ink, indelibly marking brawlers. Surprisingly, they don't use helicopters to monitor the crowd and help identify flash points and organizers as police in many other major cities do.