On Sunday, we arrived at Bastille Square in Paris under heavy rain, ready for a protest that had been billed as a “Day of Anger” by the dozens of far-right groups responsible for organizing it. The demonstration had a nebulous array of gripes: They hated abortions, the gays, the Jews, and so on. Most of all, though, they hated the French president, François Hollande and his Socialist Party. Hollande actually become more popular since news broke of his affair with actress Julie Gayet, but his approval rating is still a dismal 31 percent, and that seems unlikely to change no matter how much sex he has.
That isn't to say that the far right is more popular than he is—Bastille Square was far from full. The organizers claimed there were over 150,000 protesters at the event, but the police said there were only about 17,000, which sounds closer to the truth.
Before a fist had been shaken in anger, about ten members of the militant, frequently nude feminist group FEMEN showed up to protest against the protest. By the time we arrived they had already been bundled into police vans, the crowd chucking shouts of "whores" at them as they were whisked off to the station. Their clothes had been left behind on the street, and we wondered what would happen to them.
Then the march began.
The lack of unity quickly became evident. The Catholics were leading the way, wearing blue, green, and red—the colors of the notoriously right-wing royalist town of Versailles—and protesting against gay marriage and abortion. They waved royalist flags to represent a longing for the good old days of the Ancien Régime and the aristocracy.
Unsurprisingly, supporters of the racist, anti-immigrant National Front were there as well. Weirdly for a political demonstration, most of the protesters claimed to be “apolitical,” and it was clear they were conscious that the world thinks of them as pretty abhorrent racists. We saw some guys using their keys to scratch the word hatred off a vandalized poster. Popular subjects of signs included National Front leader Marine Le Pen, the “controversial” comedian Dieudonné—you know, the dude who introduced the quenelle, a fascist salute, to NBA star Tony Parker—and Manuel Valls, the current Minister of the Interior.
The most agitated protesters were at the rear of the procession. We saw people from the Union Defence Group, a far-right student group, all dressed in black, with a big poster calling for a coup. Nearby, pro-Dieudonné militants were waving flags in honor of their hero and were still protesting for “freedom of speech.” They took the opportunity to use that freedom by taking selfies of themselves doing the quenelle on their phones and poking fun at the Holocaust (or “Shoah”) by singing “Shoah-nanas”—which in French sounds like chaud ananas, or "hot pineapple." And nanas is French slang for "chicks," as well. You know what they say, antisemites love puns about fruit! Just for good measure, they were also chanting, “JDL [Jewish Defence League], you motherfuckers!”
An uneasy and weird alliance seemed to be forming between the traditional racists of the French far right and some Arabic and black folks who'd attended to support Dieudonné. We also saw supporters of the Paris Saint Germain football team—clad in club shirts, scarves, and caps—waving smoke grenades and yelling “Thank You, Anelka!” in reference to this.
The crowd walked to Vauban Square, near the Invalides. When they got there, we noticed the first signs of unity—people listened to anti-government speeches and laughed together at the punchlines.
We left the square at around 6 PM, as the protest was mostly breaking up. We were wet and depressed but clearly not as angry as those who began fighting with riot police about half an hour after our departure. According to reports, 250 people were arrested and 19 cops were injured.