Some people see the Independent Movement for Joint Struggle, an activist group known by its French acronym MILI, as little more than a gang of masked thugs who antagonize the police with violent demonstration tactics. Others regard it as one of the driving forces behind widespread student protests against the French government's proposed labor law reform.
MILI members joined throngs of students and workers who took to the streets every Thursday in March to protest a bill that aims to improve the French economy by introducing flexible labor regulations, but which opponents say leaves laborers unacceptably vulnerable. Controversial provisions have included capping payouts in cases of unfair dismissal and raising the maximum working time for employees and apprentices — both of which were scrapped following public outcry.
VICE News recently met with four members of the movement at a spot not far from Place de la Nation square, where many of last month's protests started, on the understanding that their identities would be shielded. We'll refer to them as Frank, Julien, Pierre, and Karim. The group is between the ages of 17 and 20. Frank and Julien are college students, studying history and sociology. Pierre described himself as "a worker," while Karim, the youngest, is still in high school.
Many of the protests descended into violent clashes with the police, often involving dozens of young people concealing their faces using scarves, balaclavas, and ski masks as they squared off with cops outside the Gare de Lyon train station or hurled bottles at officers on Avenue des Gobelins.
The MILI members did not deny their use of violence, but refused to have the movement's tactics reduced to "vandalism" — an argument that they say the media perpetuates. Instead, they argued, the movement is encouraging France's students to "take back the streets, and keep them."
"You read headlines like, 'High School Protests Infiltrated by Vandals,' and it implies there is a difference — as though the vandals weren't high school students, like any others," said Karim.
"We saw what happened at Bergson," he said, referring to a recent incident in which cops were filmed beating a student protester from the Lycée Bergson high school. "It was high school students who went off on a wild protest, and attacked police stations…. They're trying to depoliticize them and say that they're just idiots who did it for kicks."
MILI members have been accused of disrupting protests and behaving like thugs who don't have a political agenda. But for Karim, the violence witnessed at recent protests is first and foremost a political act.
"Trying to reduce it to people just letting off steam is completely stupid and is a misunderstanding of what is going on with young people," he said.
"When I hear pacifist and non-violent rhetoric, I can understand, because sometimes it's not strategic to break stuff because it can compromise the rest of the protest," said Pierre.
"When people run we tell them not to run, not to push into one another. We pick people up when there's gas, we tell them to breathe slowly," explained Julien, noting that the organization even has its own medical team. Many of the students have become seasoned protesters who know to bring swimming goggles to protect themselves against police tear gas.
The movement describes itself on its Facebook page as "another way to make a stand against isolation." Its slogan, "the world or nothing," is taken from a song by the French rap group PNL and has been cropping up on banners at protests across the country.
"It means we want the world. We don't want to make do with what we've been given," said Julien.
"We're not anarchists or communists. All of these labels bother us," he went on. "We're autonomous in the sense that we try not to enter into a dialog with state institutions."
The MILI members disagreed that the movement's tactics had met with opposition within the student protest movement.
"No, no, on the contrary, you can see that many of those who are protesting are not that bothered," said Karim. "High school students keep coming back. They don't seem traumatized."
Responding to the accusations of vandalism, the members said that they didn't define their actions as violence.
"We give ourselves a point A and a point B, and the aim is to get from one to the other," said Julien. "If there are targets along the way… A target could be a temp agency — they are the first to exploit you — a bank, which is a typical symbol of capitalism, or it could be a McDonald's, because the food there is shit."
The four denied vandalizing cars or small businesses.
The true violence, Julien said, is when a police officer brings his baton down on a protester's skull or throws a sting grenade. He and his friends pointed to deep-rooted, institutional forms of violence such as educational failure and the promise of shitty wages for dead-end jobs.
For the MILI movement, the recent protests are less about demonstrating against proposed labor reforms and more about "fighting the labor law that is already in place." Frank explained that some of his friends are currently so-called apprentices who are paid a pittance to fold clothes.
"You don't need a labor law to turn your apprentice status into a shitty status," he said.
MILI believes the government is using the economic crisis to blackmail workers.
"Today it's the labor law, but it could just as easily be something else," said Julien.
A month into its existence, MILI started organizing food drop-offs in high schools to help feed the homeless. Circumventing the established student bodies and representatives — "because they are elected for their pretty speeches, popularity, and cultural capital," according to Julien — the group collected food, cooked meals, and organized distribution itself.
Then came the "Day of Wrath," an anti-government demonstration in January 2014 that the members described as a "huge fascist protest." MILI coordinated with anti-fascist organizations in Paris to organize a counter-protest.
The following October, a young environmental activist called Rémi Fraisse was killed by a police grenade during a protest against contentious plans to build a dam in Sivens. "At that point, we really had our own thing going. We set up [protests] independently," said Karim.
The movement began to focus on fighting against police brutality, particularly the violence faced by activists and young people from poorer neighborhoods. MILI members believe that young people are much more vulnerable to police brutality than adults.
"That's why we talk a lot about taking back the streets," explained Pierre. The movement started to schedule "quieter" events — including soccer tournaments and dinners — to connect with young people from working class neighborhoods. "I would almost rather people not go to a protest but come to speak to us at these dinners organized against the state of emergency," said Frank, referring to the expansion of police powers that followed last November's terror attacks in Paris, "rather than have them go to the protest and then come home, and nothing has changed for them."
The movement has around 50 core members today, with dozens of sympathizers inflating their ranks during protests. Two thirds of the movement's members are men.
"We're not looking for parity. If there are any girls who want to be there, they come. If there aren't any girls for the interview, we don't give a damn," said Karim.
The movement is made up mainly of high school and college students and workers, and the average age of its members is about 20. They come from all walks of life, mirroring the diverse demographics of many of the schools in the east of the city.
"That's what's great about being in high school or college," said Julien. "When you're working, you end up with people who have the same social status as you."
Pierre said that the movement aims to be "welcoming, not sectarian" — a big group of friends who want to show others that anyone can get organized.
"We want to set aside time and space to rethink society," the members said. But despite their revolutionary hopes, the members said they didn't believe in the prospect of an impending social revolution.
"Revolution is a word that no longer means anything. If you don't live it on a daily basis, there's no point," said Julien. "Your life expectancy is 70 years. There's little chance you'll one day experience a global revolution."
Like hundreds of others, Karim has taken part in every Nuit Debout (Rise up at Night) anti-labor law sit-in on Place de la République square.
"It's ok — you can see they have the willpower," he said of the other protesters, "but in actual fact, not much is happening." Nevertheless, he added, MILI is in favor of occupying and reclaiming public spaces.
Julien thinks it is ironic that people gather after they have finished work to protest the injustices of capitalism.
"What is this? Group therapy? It's a good idea but you have to go beyond it," he said.
"When you live through a social movement, it makes an impression on you," said Julien. "I think that for the high school students who took part in the protests these last few weeks, this will go on to inform their whole lives. They don't buy into the illusory rhetoric of waiting for the law to be repealed — they're fighting for more than that."
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