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On Nov. 19, French authorities announced that under the State of Emergency all protests leading up to and during the COP21 Paris climate talks Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, were cancelled. Protests are defined as gatherings of more than two people with a political motive.

This decision forced social movements in France and worldwide, including rural peasant organizations, urban unions, students and indigenous peoples, to reassess their plans for the climate talks. Faced with this dilemma, the first actions Sunday in Paris showed that activists have decided to speak out–both inside and outside the bounds of the protest ban.

Attac France, an anti-globalization organization key to the COP protest organizing, issued a statement saying, “We reject the society of fear, stigmatization and scapegoating. We affirm our determination to continue to circulate, to work, to enjoy ourselves, to hold meetings and to fight freely.” Other groups have treaded more carefully, but remained clear in their intentions to make their voices heard outside the conference.

The first casualities of the protest ban took place between Thursday and Friday, when 24 well-known environmental and climate activists in Paris and near-by cities were placed under house arrest on claims that they were planning protests for the climate talks.

With this ominous precedent, organizers moved forward on Sunday. Actions began early in the morning. Global campaigners Avaaz and partners laid out 20,000 shoes in the Place de la Republique, representing the people who would have been marching in Paris.

The plaza lies between several of the Nov. 13 shooting sites and is a short walk from the Bataclan concert venue, where 90 were killed. At mid-day protesters formed a “human chain” of thousands on Boulevard Voltaire.

The day continued in the plaza, as police blocked off Voltaire and other entrances to the broad square lined with hotels and cafes. The atmosphere was festive, with puppets, clowns and dancers mingling with Black Boc members and parents with children. Messages were varied, from opposition to nuclear power, to solidarity with refugees and Palestine.

Yet as the afternoon wore on, police became impatient for the crowd to disperse. By 2pm the police began forcing protesters out of the square. Over the next hour, they kettled several hundred people in one corner of the square and blocked access from all directions. Police dispersed tear gas among the crowd, and the air above the square grew thick with fumes.

The protesters pushed out of the square lingered, chanting and trying to monitor the situation inside the police barricade. “The police are everywhere; there isn’t justice anywhere,” they chanted in French.

At the entrance to the plaza from Boulevard San Martin, protesters stood their ground for over 45 minutes, as the police gradually pushed back the crowd. Around 3:30pm the police started tear gassing and charging at the protesters, batons raised. Tourists ducked for cover as they tried to reach their hotels. Couples emerging from department stores with holiday shopping bags in hand sprinted away from the scene.

Inside the plaza, police arrested roughly 200 people. The majority are still being held. While most media accounts attempted to paint the disturbances as the result of “anarchist” provocations, the police attacked protesters indiscriminately. The human chain action, organized by groups intending to respect the protest ban, flowed organically into the gathering in the plaza. Families, tourists and activists of all stripes were caught up in the action.

Critics have pointed out that marches during the climate talks were banned under security pretexts, yet other large public gatherings such as soccer matches and concerts have continued. The timing indicates the protest ban is a convenient pretext to quell social protest during the summit.


Marches during the climate talks were banned under security pretexts, yet other large public gatherings such as soccer matches and concerts have continued. The timing indicates the protest ban is a convenient pretext to quell social protest during the summit.


While some environmental organizations have re-focused their Paris activities so as not to violate the ban, others consider this a call for further action. Activist Danny Chivers observes at the New Internationalist that “another possibility is that the French protest ban is simply unenforceable in the face of a large enough group of determined and passionate people with sufficient public sympathy on their side.”

A range of other actions are planned for the duration of the conference. Throughout the conference The Climate Games are a roving experiment in civil disobedience. This weekend is the World Village of Alternatives in the suburb of Montreuil. Then from Dec. 7 to 11, the Climate Action Zone, known as the ZAC, will be a “hub of international creativity… and a central place for citizen’s mobilization.”

After Sunday’s protests, the Paris climate talks promise vibrant street mobilizations, despite French authorities’ crack-down.

Martha is an independent journalist reporting on the Climate Change talks, COP21, in Paris for the Americas Program. She is a regular contributor to the Americas Program at www.americas.org