By Ismail El Mouttaki

Je voudrais vous demander quelque chose, est ce que vous croyez aux fantômes? (I would like to ask you something: Do you believe in ghosts?)

Back in 2010, a bunch of young freshman finally could smell a wave of change, a wave that hypnotizes mind, and its magnetic aura did raid the whole world. [1]

“The political system must change”, screams one. Proudly, another one responds with a confident tone as if he knew it all: “The dominant culture would simply reproduces the same political system and its authoritarian practices. You will change a dictator for another… Anyway”. The third boy, in an attempt to outsmart the other ones, whispers: “Forget it. Let’s start a new community, a self-sufficient community with our refined elitist pure values: a kibbutz.” [2]

These memories are already mummified in my head and I could not care less about change anymore. Running away from the spectre of this conversation led me to the far east of the globe, its centre, and then back to the west.

Nine years later, on another saturday evening, it is time for my ritual, a kind of a few pleasurable residues of a boring childhood, glancing at Strasbourg’s ruelles, Rhine, Cathedrale and the monk who inhabits the church – but stays outside it -, my favorite street saxophonist. It does not leave me any option at all. Let’s roam again.

As I am tasting the pleasures of the city, I cannot stop thinking how spoiled I am looking through these shop windows where the most recent fashion is displayed – to everyone. Everyone is looking through the windows, nobody enters. I mean, it is still beautiful to look at. Some esthetic truths or realizations do not require possession, hasn’t Osho said it? If you love a flower, you appreciate it as it is, you do not have to own it, right? Anyway, these things are overpriced and rich people pay for the flashy light bulbs, not for the quality or for the function of these brand new cool clothes.

At the same time, these metropolitan streets have a room for every single person. I hear German, French, Spanish, something that sounds like Russian, Chinese, Arabic (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Syrian, Palestinian). I could not feel more welcomed.

By the way, have you answered my question?
Est ce que vous croyez aux fantômes? (Do you believe in ghosts?)

From a second to another, something just blew up. Was it a terrorist attack? Another explosion. I cannot stay indifferent to the sounds. Instead of running away from it – curiosity can be suicidal sometimes, trust me -, I tried to trace where the noise came from. I rapidly found out what was it and you cannot imagine how satisfied I was: “C’est juste les gilets jaunes… encore!” (it’s just the yellow vests… Again!) And the police was trying to disperse the demonstrators. [3]

It was a joke. There were more policemen than demonstrators (around sixty, seventy young men and women). To be fair, the pleasures of the city were far more attractive to passersby than a bunch of working class people demonstrating. Cynically, I thought to myself: well, let us attend this political spectacle in France, land of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

After a few minutes hearing the demonstrators insulting the police, the whole scene was getting way too boring for my saturday evening, but, it was pointless to be impatient. So, I rolled another cigarette and joined the camp of the citizen journalists who seemed not to be able to just enjoy the show for its own sake and stuck those gadgets in their… Packets.

After a while, the police started marching towards les gilets jaunes in order to empty the main street, and the demonstrators calmly went for a walk on another street. As I could not leave the show before its end, which could sound simply disrespectful, I followed the demonstrators just to see how far it could go. A few blocks away, I found myself back to the Cathedrale, the Saxophonist, the breeze, et huit estafettes (and eight police cars).

The police then encircled the demonstrators. The demonstrators kept insulting the police using the same insults. A middle-age woman helplessly screams while holding her cigarette and pointing at the policemen: “Mais on vous paye pour nous protéger. On vous paye. La France est perdue. la france e…” (but we pay you to protect us. We pay you. France is lost. France…). The policemen did not seem to care less.

The actual show begins now. All of a sudden, policemen started beating the hell out of the demonstrators, spraying lacrimogene at their faces, and everyone started running away – I said everyone. The journalists finally put their phones in their packets and got time for some jogging. La matraque (the truncheon) does not discriminate. Actually, it couldn’t get more egalitarian as suddenly everyone became an enemy of the police! Everyone became an enemy of the state.

Being on the streets is dangerous and, of course, it is also because a bunch of frustrated bitter resentful workers who do not want to pay taxes. These spoiled French… They want to make a revolution out of everything! Just pay your taxes, go for a walk, enjoy looking at overpriced fancy clothes you cannot buy, return home, watch TV, have bad sex, and hey, le français, le…euuh le nationaliste authentique ne demande jamais ce que son pays peut faire pour lui, il demande ce qu’il peut faire pour son pays (the French… The genuine nationalist never asks what his country can do for him, he asks what he can do for his country), don’t forget that. [4]

This whole mess was suspended for a while after we hid inside a residential building. Time for some rest. A demonstrator happily offered me a cigarette and jokingly reminded me we do not have time to roll cigarettes, as the guardians of La Republique can show up anytime. At that moment, I felt this transcendental bond with this French, who might be a grandson of a colonial settler [5] who probably might have oppressed, stole, humiliated my grandfather, my neighbors’ parents, or an Algerian’s friend family [6]. Suddenly, I realized how a cigarette and a truncheon could unify us. I am no French national, I am not a worker, to be honest, I may have never actually worked, but, here I am reminiscing about 2010 and I could finally find a conversation partner, a smoking partner. What could I say? Vive La Matraque! Vive la France!  

The streets are empty again. No police. Time to roam and join the rest of the demonstrators. They gathered on les quais du Rhine (on the quay of the Rhine). Back to the insults, the chanting, the hurling and that cigarette were my membership card to frustrated, bored, resentful workers whose one of the demands is sending people like me back “home”. Well, it does not matter. Solidarity is a moral obligation, no need to divert our attention with this unnecessary political rhetoric.

Ah sa voix me hante (and her voice haunts me)! This Pascale Ogier!

The protest is dead, but people are encircled again from all sides. Sur le quai du Rhine (on the way of the Rhine), nowhere to hide, nowhere to run, I managed to go under the bridge alone. Others did it as well. I went to the other side, I rolled another cigarette and stared at the blue flashy lights clinging. A maghrebin looking young interrupts this agonizing moment to ask me: “do you have a paper?”, and I indifferently said yes and gave it to him. Then, he asked me if I would like to smoke a joint. I said no. He then rushly asked again: “Do you want some coke?” Time to go home.

By the way, before I leave I just wanted to let you know. Je crois aux fantômes. Absolument! Et vous? (I believe in ghosts. Absolutely! And you?)
Featured picture: Christophe Becker, Flickr


[1] Who are the winners and losers from the Arab Spring?

[2] What exactly is a Kibbutz?

[3] Strasbourg: le cortège des gilets jaunes s’est dispersé vers 17h

[4] Palmer, Robert R. “The National Idea in France before the Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 1, no. 1 (1940): 95-111. doi:10.2307/2707012.

[5] The French Zone.

[6] Tarde, Alfred de. “The Work of France in Morocco”. The Geographical Review. Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jul., 1919), pp. 1-30 (30 pages)

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