For a couple of days we were almost able to forget the ruling state of emergency in Paris. With the exception of the mini-revolt on the Place de la République, Sunday's human chain was seen as a success. On Tuesday, the strategy meeting of the climate (justice) movement managed to spread a certain amount of optimism. Last week, even the French government temporarily lifted the general ban on demonstrations. Planning for and discussions surrounding D12, i.e. 12 December, the day on which social movements hope to have the final word on the climate summit, were back in full swing.
Since Friday morning, however, people have once again been painfully aware of the reality of the state of emergency. During the daily meeting between Coalition Climat21 representatives and the French Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, the minister withdrew the previously lifted ban on demonstrations for 12 December. On Thursday afternoon, the French government had stated that it would tolerate a public closing rally. By Friday, though, the government had changed its mind, maintaining that the police were incapable of ensuring a sufficient level of security for a rally on a public square. Instead, the government offered Coalition Climat21 a small sports stadium in the south of Paris for the final rally.
Faced with the risk of a terrorist attack, to some this may initially appear justifiable. However, the situation is contradictory, with other large public events such as Christmas markets going ahead without restrictions. The obvious suspicion then is that the French government wants to prevent social movements from visibly declaring the foreseeably meagre negotiation results (in the context of a need for radical action in the face of the climate catastrophe) a complete failure.
Friday afternoon evidenced how limited the margin for public dissent in Paris currently really is. On this day, in the touristic heart of Paris, the Grand Palais on the Champs Élysées Boulevard saw the grand opening of the 'Solutions COP21' fair. For corporations this fair is the central place for greenwashing in Paris. Fossil energy giants such as EDF and Engie try to improve their image and present themselves as pioneers of climate protection, to conceal the fact that they do everything to grant their devastating business models as long a life as possible.
Guided by the small but very dedicated Brussels NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and the CEO's climate campaigner Pascoe Sabido, activists had been preparing for months to disrupt the opening by organising what they dubbed the 'Toxic Tour'. Activists dressed up as tour guides were to lead visitors around the exhibition, explaining the dirty facts of fracking, water pollution and climate damage left unmentioned by the sterile clean stands. Their aim was to protest against market mechanisms such as emissions trading, REDD and the Clean Development Mechanism as well as against the 'False Solutions COP21'. Their message: the UN process emphasises entirely wrong solutions and seeks support from the completely wrong allies.
'Toxic tour with toxic facts'
The police of course went out of their way to prevent these activists, who were dressed up as normal fair visitors, from entering the Grand Palais. Whilst hundreds of people were still waiting outside, around 150 climate activists nonetheless managed to enter and stage at least parts of the 'Toxic Tour', ensuring the 'toxic facts' broad media coverage.
Particularly fortuitous was the fact that the police inadvertently aided media coverage by initially granting Pascoe Sabido the opportunity to give an interview live on television before proceeding to drag him very visibly out of the building. A small success for the movement, even if it also showed the limited possibilities in Paris.
On Friday evening, too, the state of emergency ruled. At the daily meeting of Coalition Climat21's coordinating group, members discussed the difficult question of how to react to the government offer. Should they reject the stadium? This would then mean that there would be no place for the different segments of the movement to meet at the end of the summit in order to visibly and loudly have the last word. Or should they accept the proposal? This would mean the movement submitting to the plans of the French government and greatly sacrificing its potential to communicate its position and offer its interpretation of the summit results. To many it is also essential to resist increasingly repressive French government policies vis-à-vis critical movements, in a situation where the government is taking advantage of a population in a state of shock after the Paris attacks. To them, the situation looks much like the historic examples compiled by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine.
Protests need to be visible and empowering
Debate is raging within the climate movement. Organisations that are more moderate want to accept the offer to create an additional space beside the planned 'Red Lines' civil disobedience action, so that less confrontation-oriented activists can also contribute to the final word. The more radical segments of Coalition Climat21, however, want to resist all attempts at repression, also beyond the particular context of the climate summit. Many have the feeling that what is at stake is the general freedom of movements to act. A further central argument is that it could prove key to the future of the climate movement for activists to experience the final rally as empowering. It is questionable whether this will be possible in a remotely located stadium. Many, however, say that such an experience is precisely what the climate movement needs to take away from Paris so as to continue growing.
Faced with this situation, the climate movement now has to come together to find the right strategy. Success will depend on radical activists recognising that they need to ditch their plans for actions, the very moderate organisations shaking off their fear of peaceful civil disobedience and the (mainly French) groups within Coalition Climat21 overcoming their deep divisions. Many now hope for a unified, peaceful - and defiant - final rally full of dignity.