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Paris Climate Activists Rely on Face-to-Face Interactions to Plan Protests

Claire Arkin Dec 11, 2015

The feeling in Paris is more and more hectic as December 12 approaches, when there will be several large actions in defiance of the state of emergency. Despite the likelihood of a strong police response, The Coalition Climat 21, made up of both large, moderate green organizations and smaller more radical groups, have reached a consensus that the movement will have the last word before the end of the COP 21 climate summit that has been taking place in Paris during the first two weeks of December.

Navigating this environment requires being in the right place at the right time. Unlike the People’s Climate March, which was sanctioned and highly centralized around the organizations 350.org and Avaaz, the current political climate necessitates a certain amount of secrecy. The Climate Games, for example, who’s slogan is “we are nature defending itself,” relies upon small, often playful actions organized by a select few with little or no external contact until after the action has taken place, in order to avoid police detection. In contrast, the action that took place at the Louvre this past Wednesday was widely publicized on social media to increase participation (although the much smaller action within the Louvre was kept secret). The peaceful protest highlighted the fiscal ties between the cultural institution and the fossil fuel companies Total and Eni. (See my recent article on these types of campaigns]. 

I attended the rehearsal for the artistic action outside of the Louvre the day before, and the proceedings were disrupted by a strange announcement– that members of the police and Total were present at the meeting at that very moment. Immediately everyone started looking around to see who seemed not to belong. This is just one example of the kind of paranoia and distrust engendered within the movement because of the increased security in the state of emergency. I’ve found myself not wishing to ask people who were involved in more secret actions too many questions for fear of seeming too inquisitive to be trusted. At bigger meetings I could not forget that a member of the police was likely among us. One could see how this surveillance could be used as a purposeful tactic to fracture the bonds of the movement through distrust and fear. 

However, surprisingly there is a bright side to the situation. The decentralized nature of communication within the movement in Paris means that much of my information comes by word of mouth. Unlike the more impersonal, removed forms of internet communication, much of the info I get about where to go and what to do comes from building face-to-face relationships with other activists. There is something frenetic and exciting about this “off the grid” form of connectivity within the movement, I’d imagine not dissimilar to how social movements worked in the 1960’s when there was no email or social media. It reminds me that the strength and efficacy of our movement hinges upon the cultivation of personal relationships. 

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a place called the Centquatre, an arts space funded by the city of Paris. This gigantic, beautifully curated and maintained building is home to the Zone D’Action Climat, coordinated by the Coalition Climat 21, which comprises of workshops, action trainings, and generally as a space to exchange ideas. It’s eye-opening that the French government provides these kind of free spaces where artists can meet and rehearse, and where radical groups can come together. Imagine if we had that kind of resource in a place like New York City, so that our movement spaces no longer have to scrounge for money from foundations whose support all too often comes with ideological strings attached. 

The Coalition is not releasing the location of Saturday’s big march until tomorrow afternoon. Until then we continue to make art, to train ourselves in nonviolent civil disobedience, and to celebrate the strength of this global movement. 

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