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PROTESTS

French bakers protest over surging power prices

Dressed in aprons and brandishing baguettes, hundreds of bakers demonstrated in the streets of Paris on Monday to warn that the country's beloved bread and croissant makers were under threat from surging electricity and raw material costs.

French bakers protest over surging power prices
A man during a march organised by the collective for the survival of bakers and crafts artisans against the rising energy costs in Paris on January 23, 2023. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

“We feel like there’s a huge injustice,” said Sylvie Leduc from the rural Dordogne region who had travelled to the capital for the protest. “We know how to run a business, that’s not a problem, but we’re faced with increases that are just impossible to pass on to customers.”

The protest was yet another sign of the anger and incomprehension felt by many French people over the sudden price hikes linked to the war in Ukraine, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic that hit global supply chains.

Bakers were already struggling with higher butter and flour costs, while the price of eggs has also spiked because of a national bird flu outbreak that has hit many French farms.

The final straw for many of the country’s 35,000 bakeries has been the annual renewal of their electricity contracts, with suppliers suddenly asking for astronomical monthly payments in 2023.

READ MORE: Boulangeries across France face closure as energy bills skyrocket

Leduc’s husband Jean-Philippe said their power bill had increased six-fold in January, meaning they could hang on for only a few more months before being forced to close — unless financial help arrived. 

“Thirty years of being a baker and it’s going to finish like this? I could never have imagined it,” he said, shaking his head. “We don’t want hand-outs, we just want to be able to live from our work.” 

For the French, their local bakery is about more than simple food shopping: they serve as a symbol of the national way of life, while providing a focal point for many communities.

“The day starts with a baguette!” former presidential candidate Jean Lassalle, an ardent defender of traditional rural French communities, told AFP at the rally.

“These people are the ones who get up the earliest in France and they’ve had enough.”

‘Bakeries in Danger’

Given the emotional attachment to French bread, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has sought to highlight the help on offer for small business owners.

Macron welcomed bakers to the presidential palace on January 6, telling them: “I’m on your side”.

He outlined various government schemes which could help bring down electricity bills by 40 percent for eligible businesses.

But many of those demonstrating said the different systems put in place were either too complicated, too slow to deliver help, or  available for only the smallest bakeries with less than 12 employees, for example.

Some carried banners reading “Bakeries in Danger”, while one man pushed a wooden coffin on wheels with a skeleton inside dressed in a baker’s apron and trousers.

Many said they had always accepted the long hours, lack of sleep and gruelling physical labour out of the love for the profession, but felt compelled to hit the streets now.

“I’ve never seen bakers protest before,” said Joelle Reimel, 56, who said her monthly power bill for her bakery 50 kilometres (30 miles) southwest of Paris had increased from €2,500 a month to €14,000.

“We don’t have time to demonstrate normally. We’re up at 2am and go to bed at 8 in the evening.”

Pension protests

The protest came after one of the biggest demonstrations in decades last Thursday when more than a million people protested against an unpopular pension reform that will raise the age of retirement to 64 for most people.

Macron’s opponents have sought to pin the blame for electricity rises on him and European Union rules which mean power prices across the bloc are linked to the price of gas, even if the electricity is generated from other sources.

Anti-immigration and eurosceptic leader Marine Le Pen has assailed the “refusal of Emmanuel Macron to break from the absurd European rules on the electricity market.”

Macron has acknowledged that European electricity pricing rules are “flawed” and has promised to reform them.

For Lionel Bonnamy, the fate of France’s bakeries is also about the country’s economic model, which has long sought to protect small shopkeepers and artisans — what he called the “economic fabric” of the country.

“If we carry on this way, everything will look the same, uniform, big business,” said the award-winning baker from Paris.

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PROTESTS

Black Bloc: Who are the black-clad figures who hog the headlines at French protests?

They feature in some of the most dramatic images from French demos - smashing windows, torching bins and confronting police. But who are the 'Black Bloc'?

Black Bloc: Who are the black-clad figures who hog the headlines at French protests?

It’s a regular pattern in French demonstrations or manifestations – thousands or even tens of thousands of protesters turn out to peacefully register their opposition to something, and then as the demo ends figures dressed all in black emerge and begin causing havoc.

They frequently smash shop windows or bus shelters, set fire to bins, street furniture or piles or trash and often clash with police. As such, their activities create the most dramatic images of the demo, which end up being used by the media.

Most people agree that the black-clad figures are not simply demonstrators – they turn up prepared; their faces covered, toting gas masks or goggles to protect against the inevitable police tear gas and often with tools or home-made incendiaries.

Some see them as radical Leftists, anti-capitalists or Marxists, others as hooligans solely out to wreak havoc, destroy property and engage in violent confrontations with police.

Although not originally a French movement, in recent years they have became more notorious in France, particularly for destruction caused along the Champs-Elysées, the high-end fashion and shopping boulevard, during the ‘yellow vest’ protests of 2018/19.

Some protest leaders and unions have expressed regret that Black Blocs infiltrate their protests, focusing the media attention on violent elements rather than the protest topic at hand.

The history of Black Bloc

It was West Berlin police in the 1980s who gave them their name – the English term is a translation of the German “Schwarzer Block” – in reference to their protest tactics.

At the time, activists involved in the non-hierarchical Autonomist movement protesting against squatter evictions began to use the method during protests – essentially moving to the front of the march as a ‘compact black block’ to preserve anonymity, protect one another, and sometimes to confront police or begin property destruction.

In April 2000, Black Bloc made headlines outside of Germany, when a group called the “Radical Anti-Capitalist Blocs” (RACB) joined in rallies against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC. 

Many researchers on the topic point to 2009 as the first time Black Bloc made their appearance in France. In Strasbourg, thousands of protesters gathered to demonstrate against NATO during the April 2009 summit.

Among the 10,000 to 30,000 people present were approximately 2,000 Black Bloc protesters who vandalised much of the Port du Rhin district, causing damages estimated at €100 million.

In the years following, Black Bloc reappeared during protests against the 2019 pension reforms, as well as during the ‘yellow vest’ movement.

READ MORE: Whatever happened to the ‘yellow vests’ in France?

Modern Black Bloc are defined as “a procession of revolutionary militants dressed in black who are likely to resort to direct action”, explained Francis Dupuis-Deri, a political scientist, to French daily Les Echos.

Who are they?

Another political scientist, Myriam Benraad, told Les Echos that in the 1980s, Black Bloc members “were fairly educated People” and often intellectuals.

In more recent years, many people in France have typecast them as “teacher’s sons” – essentially middle-class young people who engage in far-left politics and violent protest for a short time, before themselves joining the professional classes.

It is difficult to have a complete picture of who joins Black Bloc, due to the anonymous nature of the movement, but it seems that the demographic is more mixed than this image, although it is generally a young movement and news photos suggest that members are mostly white. 

According to Benraad: “Today in France, it is more so the radical left, but it is difficult to determine how they got there (…) globally, Black Blocs are attached to radical revolutionary political movements – like anarchists, Marxist-Leninists, radical environmentalists, feminists and autonomists”.

Political commentator and columnist for The Local, John Lichfield, wrote in UnHerd that “many are students (which in France can cover ages 18 to 25). Some live in squats and live on casual work. Others have well-paid jobs”. 

In an interview with TV5 Monde, one activist said that in terms of gender demographics, about 20 to 40 percent of members were women – in 2020 The Local spoke to one Black Bloc member who was a 35-year-old Parisienne who joined the movement after losing her job as a server during the pandemic.

What do they stand for?

Although they do not belong to one particular political party or union, Black Bloc tends to support a far-left, anti-capitalist message, which is typically seen in the graffiti sprayed during protests.

Destruction tends to be concentrated on symbols of capitalism and globalisation – like banks and multinational companies or restaurants, like McDonalds or real estate agents (which are targeted for ‘gentrifying’ neighbourhoods).

However, it is not uncommon for cars parked along protest paths to end up burned, in addition to police vehicles, while Black Bloc have also torched news kiosks in Paris, which are operated by self-employed traders earning close to minimum wage.

In a 2020 interview with The Local, one Black Bloc militant – a 35-year-old Parisian woman who had previously worked in the service industry – said: “To me, protests are just walking in the street. There is no point in that. Not now. Protesting worked when we had presidents who listened to the people, but this government doesn’t care.”

READ MORE: INTERVIEW: A French Black Bloc rioter explains reasons for protest violence

She said that after losing her job she felt that: “There is something within that needs to get out. I told myself that I need to get all that hatred out of my body, otherwise I would implode.

“Either we keep all that inside, get ill and end up on antidepressants, or we dress up in black and explode on the streets.”

One thing that the Black Bloc are is violently anti-police – they frequently engage in running battles with riot police, who respond with tear gas, water canon, rubber bullets and flash grenades.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why do French police love to use tear gas so much?

Although they have sometimes attacked journalists covering demos, especially representatives of right-wing media, they are very rarely violent towards members of the public and, perhaps paradoxically, present little threat to passers-by.

How many of them are there?

According to French intelligence sources in 2020, there were an estimated 800 “pure members” of Black Bloc, but in 2018 at least 1,000 participated in a protest on May Day. 

As the group communicates using secure channels, like Signal, where their identities can be protected, and one tactic involves dispersing and running off in different directions after causing destruction – making it difficult for police to make arrests or identifications – the group’s true numbers are not clear.

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