On Wednesday, Clément Méric – an 18-year-old French left-wing activist – was beaten to death in Paris by a group of far-right skinheads. As you might expect from the news of a bunch of horrible fascist thugs mercilessly killing an innocent teenager, most of France was quickly overcome with shock, anger and sadness.
The incident happened when Méric and a group of friends walked out of a Fred Perry outlet and into three skinheads – two men and one woman – with swastika tattoos and "white power" and "blood and honour" T-shirts. After a bit of mutual provocation, the two groups started scrapping and Méric was struck with a knuckle duster before his head slammed into a post and he hit the ground. He was taken to hospital after the attackers had fled the scene, but was pronounced brain-dead the same evening.
Méric's death was confirmed yesterday by French police, who also announced that they had arrested four suspects, aged between 20 and 30. Three more suspects, who belong to the right-wing groups Revolutionary Nationalist Youths and the Third Way, were picked up later that day.
Yesterday, gatherings were organised across France to both commemorate Clément’s memory and protest against far-right groups. I went to the two gatherings in Paris to see how angry the country was about Clément’s murder.
The first memorial, organised by Action Antifasciste Paris-Banlieue (AAP-B, the anti-fascist group Clément belonged to) started at 5PM in Caumartin street, where Méric was attacked. Over 300 people gathered in silence around the post that he fell into after receiving the fatal blow less than 24 hours earlier.
Dozens of people were wearing red and black T-shirts that read, "Clément, forever one of us," and the majority of the crowd were visibly angry about Méric's murder, all of them trying to make sense of what had happened.
I spoke to Arnaud, a 24-year-old anti-fascist, who told me, “Like everyone here, I feel hate and outrage towards the people who committed this hideous crime. The attackers should be severely punished and get what they deserve for being fascist bastards.” Which seemed to be the general consensus among everyone present. I tried speaking to the people in the red and black T-shirts, but French anti-fascists generally aren't too keen on journalists and all of them told me to fuck off.
AAP-B's leader delivered a speech where he recalled what had happened the previous day. As he finished his speech with the words, “Clément, we will never forget you,” several people started weeping.
After a long silence – during which flowers were laid on the ground around the post and fists raised in the air – the anti-fascist slogan, “No Pasaran!” erupted from the street, followed by “Paris anti-fascists!” and “Fascism is gangrene, you kill it or die of it!” Members of the AAP-B then unfolded a banner that read: “Clément, forever one of us.”
Several shops in the area had closed down for the event and French riot police had started blocking access to the now packed-out street. I'm not sure why, because the gathering was definitely always one of mourning rather than revenge, even though I did hear the occassional, "I hope some fascists come down – I could do with a good neo-Nazi beating."
I asked Eric, a 56-year-old anarchist, why he'd brought a sign that bore the slogan, "Valls resign" when the gathering was supposed to be apolitical. He told me that, in his eyes, the crime was a direct result of how Manuel Valls, the French Minister of the Interior, had created a "hard social climate in France". He continued, saying, "this climate has resulted in people moving to the political fringes, and violent actions like this were bound to happen sometime”.
At 6PM, the crowd started to disperse as the leader of AAP-B called on everyone to march to Saint-Michel, on the other side of the Seine river, where a second gathering was to be held. Members of the left-wing groups started to walk, chanting, “No Pasaran!” as tourists filed back into Caumartin street.
By around 6.30PM, the atmosphere had become increasingly and overtly political. Thousands of people gathered around the fountain on the Saint-Michel square, where hundreds of flags representing several left-wing political parties and various unions had been hung. The French Left Front, the New Anticapitalist Party, the “Pirate Party”, the General Confederation of Labour and even some Anonymous kids were there, joining in the cries of “No Pasaran!”
As the various political figures reeled off their speeches, a large portion of the crowd responded with boos and whistles, shouting stuff like, “We’re here for Clément!”, “No politics today!” and “No appropriation!”
Members of anti-fascist groups looked outraged that the 18-year-old’s death was being exploited for political ammo. “These politicians are using the incident as an excuse to criticise the government and far-right parties such as the National Front,” explained Marie, a 34-year-old demonstrator. “It’s nonsense – Clément wasn’t involved in any of these parties, he was just an antifa.”
The gathering in Saint-Michel had nothing to do with the first one in Caumartin street. Here, as people talked about revolution and drank beers in the street, I was expecting to see political tracts being handed out and barbecues installed on street corners. I wasn’t completely wrong. People were flying Che Guevara flags, smoking weed and performing lousy versions of Bob Dylan songs. All the fresher-level, left-wing cliches caused the members of Action Antifasciste Paris-Banlieue to retreat to a bridge at the back of the crowd to mourn Clément’s death in peace.
I asked Jean, 34 – who claimed to have been involved in both far-left and far-right groups, confusingly – if he thought that the political aspect of Clément’s murder could spark violence in France. “I don’t think so. It’s not something new; anti-fascists and fascists have been fighting for a long time. But it’s stupid – they wear the same clothes, listen to the same music. This crime is just something politicians can use for their own objectives,” he answered. “But this crime happened in a context of financial and social crisis in France, so of course it has a political aspect. If these fascists and anti-fascists were all working and had enough money to feed their families it never would have happened.”
After an hour, the crowd dispersed as the sun was setting in central Paris. As debates over Clément Méric’s death continue in the French media, anti-fascist groups have promised reprisals against far-right groups in the near future.
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