A cute kid named Florent shows his support for Bashar al-Assad. This is his second time protesting on behalf of the regime.
On Saturday, October 20, in the Gardens of the Trocadéro in Paris, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, around 40 protestors with signs and whistles gathered around an enormous Syrian flag to show their support for the country’s president. In the photographs affixed to the signs, Bashar al-Assad wears a gray suit and a shit-eating grin.
As I approached the group, wading through two other protests taking place in the same square—one for Southern Moroccan independence, the other somehow affiliated with the Ivory Coast—I was overwhelmed with images of Assad, who most of the world holds responsible for 20,000 deaths over the past 20 months of civil war in Syria. The folks who had assembled here are some of his biggest fans.
Saïd, a 30-something French Syrian who refused to give me his last name, said that he admires Assad’s fashion sense, along with everything else about him: “Just have a look at the suit. He’s stylish.” Saïd told me that he and his family have been Assad supporters since the beginning of the uprising. His mother is a Sunni Muslim and his father is a Christian, and he’s convinced that only Assad can maintain the secular Syrian state. “With Bashar, the different religions can coexist. If the United States helps depose him, it’ll be over. Salafis will take over and kill everyone.”
It’s true that these protestors have a lot to lose if religious factions manage to commandeer the country. Many of them are related to families of regime officials, Syrian Christians and members of the Alawite sect that also includes golden-boy Bashar. Any and all of these groups could be persecuted if Islamic law is instated in the country.
Three Syrian women who live in Paris smile for their favorite dictator.
Nordine, a French fighter pilot of Syrian origin, attended the rally in his military uniform and wore a cap decorated with a Syrian flag. “I studied and learned my job in the United States to protect and serve my country,” he said. “As a Syrian Alawite, I do my best to protect my people against barbarians.” When I asked him whom he considers to be the most barbarous group in his homeland, his answer was immediate: “Those who kill women and children. Salafis, Saudis, Qataris.” He paused. “And Jews.”
Behind Nordine, a group had begun applauding and singing. After our conversation, Nordine walked toward them and took charge, proposing a new, manly chant in the form of a threat directed toward the French president: “[François] Hollande, go home, Syria is not yours!” Gathered around the huge black, white and red Syrian flag, they then started to yell a new, somewhat cryptic slogan: “[French minister of foreign affairs Laurent] Fabius Hollande, UN in Syria? No place for fascists in our country!” This seemed to confuse several protestors, who just continued to clap and smile.
Florent, a French-born 17-year-old with braces, sang the slogans so loud that he irritated the Syrian mum standing next to him. “My parents agree with me, but they’re not here today,” he told me. “It’s the second time I’ve [publicly] supported the Syrian Army.” He said that he came to the square after reading about the protest on forums at the video-game website jeuxvideo.com.
I asked him whether the other forum members share his pro-Assad views and he mumbled an answer, trying to remain composed. “Jeuxvideo.com deals with a wide range of subjects: music, movies, politics… We don’t have all the same opinions. I’m nearly the only politically engaged individual,” he said. “But when I reach the voting age, my voice won’t go to the lefties!”
About 90 percent of the crowd were of Middle Eastern origin, and the remainder was composed of far-right activists, most of whom were associated with Alain Soral’s Égalité et Réconciliation, a faction closely linked to the notoriously xenophobic National Front. These activists kept repeating “Go Syria!” and clapping, all the while seeming uncomfortably aware that the Syrian community doesn’t accept them.
After a while, I almost forgot that these people are supporting a regime accused of war crimes; since I was the only journalist present, the protesters considered me a friend. A bunch of them came up to shake my hand—among them a 15-year-old girl wearing a camo outfit, two elderly Shia Syrians and a middle-aged woman with a sign in favor of Muammar Gaddafi. “He embodies the freedom of the Arab people,” she said. “He never surrendered to the American-Zionist empire. Just like me.”
By this point, I had been standing in the rain for nearly two hours. The protest was turning into a series of heated discussions between protestors (“UN, assholes!” someone shouted nearby), so I decided to pack it in. On the way to the metro station, I ran into one last demonstrator, a friendly older woman who wanted to explain what had pushed her to come to the rally.
A Christian, her family still lives in Damascus. “I’ve been there four times since the beginning of the war. It’s horrible,” she said. “I saw people die in front of me. I cried during the entire flight back. The rebels will kill anyone.”
After listing all the nations involved in the Syrian conflict, she came to an exhausted conclusion: “You know who’s orchestrating this, don’t you?” Uh oh, I thought. “It’s them, as always. The Jews.”
Photos by Hugo Denis-Queinec.
For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.