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.
#Grève28Mars | Interpellation d'un individu en possession d'un couteau, d'une arme par destination, de mortiers d'artifice et de matériel de protection, lors des contrôles en amont de la manifestation parisienne. pic.twitter.com/9CwRWYKg5g
— Préfecture de Police (@prefpolice) March 28, 2023
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.
Des individus s’en sont pris à un Carrefour Market sur l’avenue #Gambetta. Situation confuse sur place, plusieurs départs de feu. #MarcheDesLibertés #Paris #5decembre #manifestation #StopLoiSécuritéGlobale pic.twitter.com/4hbEHHBIof
— Yazid Bouziar (@ybouziar) December 5, 2020
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.
Find out more about the black bloc protesters in our Talking France podcast