Because I’m working, if you call activism working, almost all the time, this blog will always be a bit late. But then it’s an inside view. And an inside view is only the bit you see. We went to the human chain, and we talked and listened to activists, but I never saw the huge square full of neatly laid out pairs of shoes representing the citizens who had been silenced by banning the march. We were no distance at all from the Place de la Republique, but I didn’t see the ‘incidents’. What I did see was crowds and crowds of people up and down the streets, standing side by side with their banners and imaginative, symbolic costumes or head gear – people from every country, I should think, speaking many languages, demanding that the governments do something effective about global warming.
I was particularly taken by a disciplined group of Africans with the slogan ‘Droits devant’ – rights first. I suppose they were demanding social justice, what’s called ‘mitigation’ for the ‘developing countries’, from the rich countries that have done most of the damage. I did go over to them, but there was so much noise and my French isn’t good enough to get it all. They were questioning me about our organisation: if it wasn’t genuinely international, they weren’t interested.
I listened to some Brazilians, to a Catherine, who belongs to an organisation called Dialogues of Humanity (but in French) which sounds a bit like Sustaining All Life, I saw angels, I saw cyclists – here is some of what I saw.
Monday was a strange day. We traipsed out to COP21 to familiarise ourselves with the route, and to see the ‘Hotel School’ – the Lycee Hotelier Rabelais – where our workshops will be held. We went into COP21, and through security, where everything we carried had to go through X-ray machines as in an airport, but instead of making us throw our water away, we had to drink it in front of them, to see if we dropped dead from poisonous explosives. It was a bit like being a king’s tasting boy.
Once we’d got in, we went out again – it turned out we were in the wrong bit, which was only for delegations. (But all this travelling around served a good purpose, today, Tuesday, I came back alone from COP21 with no problem.)
Yesterday afternoon we put up posters around the Gare du Nord,
using lashings of sellotape, a method of fly-posting that’s new to me. We chose places where there were already old posters. I wanted to put one over a poster of that fascist Marina Le Pen,
but I was persuaded not to because it was on a special board reserved for elections…. someone had scratched her eyes out, though.
We got to COP21 early – too early. We heard they weren’t going to allow the general public into the area supposed to be for them, the ‘Climate Generations’ area, after all. Then we heard they would, but not till 10.30. It was cold. I met four people from Bristol, including mayor George Ferguson in his trademark red trousers. And others – Cine, an African woman now living in Paris, Gong,an indigenous man from Vietnam who is financed by a donor, has come alone, but like us has no accreditation and it’s hard to find anywhere to get his people’s case heard. They live in the forests, and their livelihoods are constantly being undermined. At last we got inside. We got through security into a huge room like a hangar, floored and partitioned with composite wood panels, with smaller rooms off for meetings, areas to chat, brightly coloured benches, toilet areas where as soon as you washed your hands someone wiped the basin, bins where people got you to do a survey on recycling as soon as you threw away a tissue.
‘Madam recycles well!’ Oh, cheers.
Does all of this have any relevance to the talks that are going on? No, if the two ever meet, it will probably be in elections or on the streets. This big hangar is a way of keeping the activists out of the way, giving them a place where campaigning groups and NGOs can exchange ideas. But it seems a useful purpose for the environmental movement too. Meanwhile, the delegates to the actual Conference of the Parties (the talks between countries) are listening to long speeches, debating technicalities, hour after hour. They are probably dying of boredom, or withering with despair. I met a journalist who said ten minutes at a time was all he could take of the strange formal language of UN-speak. After ten minutes he’d pop out for a coffee. Maybe some of the delegates, who can’t pop out for a coffee, have forgotten the real meaning of what they are talking about. Others, like the Ethiopian delegate I met with his sad resigned expression, probably can’t forget it.
So I went into a meeting on hunger. Can you see how shiny it all is? I didn’t realise the event would all be in French, so I didn’t pick up the headset for translation. I could understand most of what was said, but it was a strain. A man from Benin in west Africa (ex French colony, one of the poorest countries in the world) was talking about how the cotton monoculture has ruined the soil, how hard it is now to grow anything else, how droughts and floods caused by climate change cause crop failure, and then people starve. He described the things the community is doing to try to adapt to this situation. Yes, it was a strain listening to this in French, and it would have been a strain in English. When he’d finished, I went out and ate my cheese sandwich. I was glad I’d brought it when I saw the queues for the pop up restaurants.
Everywhere activists were talking to each other. Another woman and I set up our flyers on a vacant table, and soon I was chatting to an woman working as an au pair who had come to find out more about climate change, and a Welsh woman who wanted to come to tomorrow’s workshop. Then it was time to stand outside the COP21 perimeter fence, a long expanse of high but tasteful green railings, holding a poster showing people the way to our workshops in the Lycee Hotelier Rabelais.
Or not. The police didn’t like it one bit. They moved me on once, ‘Madam, il est interdit’ (strictly forbidden) to loiter, to have posters, or leaflets, or just to hang around near the perimeter fence. I obeyed them, and went to the main gate, where a friend was waiting with another direction poster. There the armed police surrounded us. After a brief argument and a few phone calls they said we could hold these posters up, as long as we stood on the grass across the road. So, protesting our harmlessness, we did as we were asked. But then three plain clothes police, a man and two women, came and confiscated our poster and sent us on our way. ‘Je suis desole” said the man. ‘I can see you are peaceful. But our orders are strict. There are no exceptions.’
Oh dear. But we will adapt. You have to adapt, don’t you? One way or another.