Article: Pandemic and Reaction – Developments in France and Greece

by Neil Middleton

30th March 2021


We may have moved into a new phase of crisis but the shadow of the last round still looms over us. A year ago we looked at two of the principle theatres of the last crisis, Greece and France, and found that there was room for optimism despite the setbacks. Anarchist and popular movements have been growing in recent years and during the last crisis started to have an impact, even if their shortcomings were evident. In the year since, it has been easy to see that we are not the only ones looking back and drawing lessons. The state too has been learning and adapting.

In France and Greece the reactionary policy of the state and responses to the pandemic have often been difficult to tell apart as society retreated indoors leaving the police alone to patrol the empty streets. While we wait to see what form the next crisis takes the state has used this first year to prepare the ground and shape the terrain to its advantage.

‘Stop police impunity’ – France, 2020.

France is sustained by its police

The drone footage of eerily empty streets was one of the hallmarks of the first period of lockdown in early 2020. Striking though they were, the images of Paris’ famous streets and monuments suddenly deserted were not completely unfamiliar. They brought to mind the way whole sections of the city were shut down and abandoned to the police and gilets jaunes protesters in 2018-19. If you were caught outside without reason during lockdown you risked a €135 fine. During 2019-20 you risked the same fine if you wore, or carried, a yellow vest in an area of the city declared forbidden. Even the drones sweeping through the air have become a common sight at demonstrations. The state of emergency which authorised the lockdown was the latest in a series of devices under which France has lived since 2015. Many of the ‘unprecedented’ measures brought on by the pandemic were not so unprecedented after all.

While the public broadly adopted the health measures as a necessity, it was the latest in a series of crises which brought the police to the fore. Jihadist attacks, the repression of social movements and the persistent problems that accompany the police in France’s diverse working class banlieue mean that the police are never far from the headlines. Whether it be the struggles on the ZADs [Zone à defender – ‘Zone to Defend’], the social movement of 2016, or most recently the gilets jaunes of 2018-19, with every round of contest the police response gets more severe. So far this has only managed to further stoke tensions, but, with the state unwilling to consider other options, successive governments have doubled down on the policy and see more police powers as the only solution to social problems.

It is not surprising then that once the first period of lockdown was over, the question of the police returned. During the first week of June several large demonstrations were held in Paris in support of the Traoré family who have been arguing that the police are responsible for the death of Adama Traoré during his 2016 arrest. Just days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Traoré family published the latest in a series of investigations supporting their claim that Adama’s death was caused by the way the police held him down. Though the demonstrations that followed were unauthorised due to the state of emergency, between 20,000-30,000 people turned out on June 2nd with tens of thousands again taking to the streets on June 6th and 13th.  Adama is not the only person to die in similar circumstances. Shortly after these demonstrations, new footage emerged of the January 2020 death of Cedric Chouviat. In the footage Cedric is heard to tell the officers holding him down that he was suffocating.

No justice, No peace – France, 2020.

The size of the protests called by the Traoré family and the impact of the George Floyd events in the USA made it difficult to dismiss these as isolated incidents. The then Interior Minister, Castaner, began to talk hesitantly of police reform and banned the use of chokeholds on suspects. This opening was brief, however. Police unions immediately protested and the ban on chokeholds was rescinded. Any reform of the police could only be one the police themselves would accept and the government was in no mood to challenge such a powerful interest group.

If the police could not be reformed, then the government would have to take a different line to end the criticism of the force. The response came in October with the ‘comprehensive security law’. Already in 2020 police powers had expanded, not just with the provisions of the state of emergency and the implementation of the lockdowns. For instance, the collection of political and religious opinions and trade union activity has been authorised.  The new security law allows for increased police surveillance of demonstrations, the further use of drones, as well as facial recognition. This has expanded police powers in a number of areas, but the fight over the law came to centre on article 24. This punished the diffusion of images or videos of the police in action with a fine of €45,000 or one year in prison. Unwilling to tackle the issue of police violence, the government chose instead to prevent the spreading of evidence of police violence.

Not surprisingly the proposed law produced a strong reaction. Throughout November and December tens of thousands of people joined demonstrations around the country to denounce the law. Civil society groups raised objections and even the European Commission guardedly expressed reservations. Frequently, these demonstrations were met with further use of police force. Since 2019, particularly in Paris, the police have adopted more aggressive tactics to try and win back control of the streets. Demonstrations are frequently surrounded by multiple lines of police in a type of mobile kettle. Baton charges, water cannon, tear gas and grenades are deployed at the first opportunity. This was seen clearly during the December 12th demonstration in Paris which saw gratuitous and unprovoked attacks from the police according to one media investigation.

It was the police themselves that came close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. While the debate on the law was raging in the national assembly and on the streets, several incidents of police violence, all filmed and undeniable, brought home the dangers of the proposed law. When refugees set up a protest camp in Place de la République, the police aggressively cleared the camp pulling up the tents and throwing people to the floor. Such scenes are no doubt frequent on the Channel coast, but they are often kept out of view. In the centre of Paris, and with multiple cameras rolling, it caused a scandal. Worse swiftly followed. When Michel Zecler, a black music producer, was spotted outside his studio without a mask, a group of police officers forced their way into the studio and attacked and beat him. After being pushed out of the building, the officers threw a tear gas canister inside before detaining Michel and others in the studio. The officers claimed they had been attacked, but, unknown to them, the whole scene was caught on camera. When the graphic images of the attack on Michel were published there was widespread shock and outrage. Even Macron was forced to talk about police violence. These incidents demonstrated perfectly the need to film the police in order to have any chance to hold the force to account. Crucially one of the reasons why the Traoré family has had to fight so long in their campaign for justice is that there is no video of the incident leading to Adama’s death.

The actions of the police, and the protests against the law, forced the government onto the back foot. But their retreat was only tactical. Article 24 is to be re-written, but is unlikely to be scrapped, and is currently awaiting discussion in the senate along with the rest of the security law. The lockdowns and health measures certainly expanded police powers but this was an agenda that already existed and will outlast the pandemic. Caught off-guard by the gilets jaunes, Macron and his party have clung ever closer to the police. A poll on attitudes towards the police indicates that, amid a general fall in support for the force, voters supporting Macron’s LREM party are even more likely to be sympathetic towards the police than Marine Le Pen’s far-right voters. While looking back to the previous crisis, these measures could aid the state to weather any future storms that follow in the wake of the pandemic.

Solidarity banner at historic Athens squat – Greece, 2020.

Police everywhere, justice nowhere

Since its election in the summer of 2019, the right-wing government of Mitsotakis seems to have believed that more police are the solution to all of Greece’s problems. What started in 2019 with evictions of anarchist and refugee squats, and the occupation of the Exarcheia neighbourhood, has expanded during the pandemic. Having reconstituted the previously disbanded mobile police units in 2019, recent months have seen a growth in the number of specialised police units. There are now police for universities, police for the metro, a new protest unit, as well as more border guards. Not to mention large orders of extra equipment for the police and plans for more soldiers, fighter jets and warships. Perhaps more so than elsewhere, the policing of the pandemic and enforcement of lockdowns blended seamlessly with existing policy.

The summer of 2020 saw the right fulfil a long-held desire to limit demonstrations with a new batch of regulations, and police powers being voted through parliament and integrated into police operations. The regulations demand that police are notified of any planned protests by appointed leaders who will then have the task of coordinating with the police and be responsible for any subsequent violence or damage. The police are given the power to dissolve protests and the organisers of protests declared illegal face one year prison sentences. In a nod to the efforts of the state in France, an early draft of the regulations issued to the police contained warnings about the dangers of citizens filming the force. Numerous protests greeted the bill as it passed through parliament but could do little to slow its progress.

The Mitsotakis government also considered Greece’s university campuses to be a little bit too free. The fate of Greece’s universities has long been a symbolic political issue. It was from the university campuses that protests against the 1967-1974 military dictatorship were launched. The bloody repression of those demonstrations kept security forces from campuses for decades following the end of the dictatorship. In practice there was never a complete ban on police action on campus and the protections that did exist were gradually eroded, but there was sufficient space for a number of political groups to exist and enjoy some protection from the state. Universities around the country often hosted anarchist spaces which were complicated for the police to get their hands on. The idea for a campus police force was rolled into a larger education bill and passed in January 2021. Quickly, the predictable scenes of riot police storming a campus unfolded when protesters in Thessaloniki occupied a university building against the measures in February.

With law and order having been the central message of Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party since it was in opposition, it is no coincidence that the most significant unrest since the crisis has been provoked by the police. In its quest to curtail the anarchist movement and banish the memories of the unrest of the crisis, the Mitsotakis government has encouraged the police to be forceful and aggressive. This model of policing, first deployed in Exarcheia, has expanded to the rest of the country with the pandemic and new protest regulations.

Tensions began to mount in late 2020 when a combination of pandemic measures and protest regulations stifled the traditional protests of November 17th and December 6th, and the mobilisations against the protest and education bills. The next stage came when Dimitris Koudondinas, prisoner and member of the former Marxist guerrilla group November 17th (17N), was personally targeted by the Mitsotakis government. 17N emerged out of the loose collection of groups that took up or advocated armed struggle against the military dictatorship. Following the fall of the dictatorship they targeted ex-Junta officials, the police, the Greek elite and representatives of the American, British and Turkish states, until their capture in 2002. Koufondinas has been imprisoned for nearly twenty years, having been sentenced for eleven murders carried out by 17N.

Koufondinas has served the vast majority of his sentence in the Korydallos prison near Athens, but, in line with penitentiary regulations and rights, he was transferred to an agricultural prison which saw some improvement in his conditions. The transfer and the granting of occasional leaves caused outrage among conservatives and the US embassy. When in opposition, New Democracy focused on this to paint a picture of the left-wing government of SYRIZA as sympathetic to ‘terrorists’ and as being soft on crime. In December 2020 the government passed a bill restricting the transfer of prisoners convicted of terrorism. Since Koufondinas was the only such prisoner this could apply to at the time, it was clear that the legislation was specifically targeted at him. The media presentation of the bill certainly made this point. It is hard not to see a personal agenda also at work. One of 17N’s victims was Pavlos Bakoyiannis, the brother-in-law of the current Prime Minister and father of Kostas Bakoyiannis, the mayor of Athens.

Within a few weeks, Koufondinas was transferred from the agricultural prison near Volos to the high-security facility at Domokos. Arguing not for release or to remain in Volos, but merely to be returned to Korydallos, where he and several other guerrillas have been held for years, Koufondinas went on hunger strike for more than 60 days. The government were content to play with Koufondinas’ life claiming that they would not grant special favours to a terrorist. This line of argument is hypocritical in the extreme. With the legislation passed in December, and the focus on him over several years, the government singled out Koufondinas for special treatment. They shaped the law to target their enemy and then stood on the principal of upholding the rule of law against terrorism. There can be few clearer examples of the state as the instrument of the personal power of the elite.

Koufondinas was the target of choice but there was a larger goal at play here. Prison hunger strikes are frequent in Greece and have at times had a significant political impact. During the recent crisis, armed struggle groups proliferated, and, when these guerrillas were captured, their campaigns in the prisons became points for the wider movement to rally around. This produced several notable campaigns in 2013, 2014 and 2015. As an extension of its attack on the anarchist and anti-authoritarian movement, it is not surprising, then, that the government wished to break this tactic. Koufondinas was just the most convenient (and, for the Mitsotakis family, most satisfying) way to do this.

The hunger strike produced a series of near daily demonstrations in solidarity with Koufondinas. A number of these gatherings, which were not allowed under ongoing lockdown restrictions, were surrounded by police units from the beginning. Riot police, water cannons and mobile units have been trained on people as soon as they gathered. As they did with protests against the education bill a few months ago, the police are preparing to prosecute the supposed leaders of these ‘illegal’ gatherings under the terms of the new regulations.

With the police confronting daily demonstrations, tensions only rose further. The police added further fuel to the fire on March 7th when they were videoed beating a man while enforcing lockdown measures in the Athenian neighbourhood of Nea Smyrni. Within hours hundreds of people in the neighbourhood were marching against the police. Two days later a much larger demonstration saw extensive clashes with the police, leading to the hospitalisation of one officer. The injury of their colleague sent the police on what can only be described as a vindictive rampage, as they dragged people out of apartment buildings, beat several detainees, and were caught on camera shouting that they were going to ‘fuck’ and ‘kill’ those they came across. As the police pursued their opponents through the streets of Nea Smyrni, Mitsotakis hastily appealed for calm without taking any responsibility for creating the situation.

This latest incident was inevitable. A police force that has been encouraged to be aggressive and has been shielded from criticism gets used to acting in a certain way. The beatings in the square of Nea Smyrni were no different to those inflicted on countless people in Exarcheia and at demonstrations around the country. Almost two years of a hardline law and order programme and months of enforcement of expanded police powers brought the situation to this boiling point. At a time when the government should be trying to bring about calm and consensus as COVID cases continue to mount, they instead stoked division and anger. When asked to enforce restrictive measures around the country, the police spread the practices they had learned in Exarcheia to everyone.

‘Who protects us from the police?’ – France, 2020.

Looking back, looking forward

The increase in police powers seen in both France and Greece during the last year exist largely independent of the current pandemic. The trend was already visible before, and it will continue long after the lockdowns are finally lifted. It is certainly easier to enact measures against gatherings on the streets when those gatherings are already illegal or restricted, but the motivation for such acts comes from the previous crisis rather than the current one.

Reaction always follows revolution, even when, as is currently the case, the revolution never took place. In a sense the increased police powers and restriction of protests is a backhanded compliment. For the state, the danger during the last crisis emanated from the streets. The uncontrollable demonstrations, riots and occupations presented more of a challenge than the traditional channels of parliamentary parties and large trade unions. The anarchists, radicals and revolutionaries were able to raise the threat of insurrection. This made Macron reverse his fuel tax increase in 2018, his only defeat to date, and deepened the crisis of the Greek state in 2008-2012. Naturally, the state has tried to learn its lesson. Its forces were too often outmanoeuvred. Now they are better equipped, more mobile and deployed in a way to restrict all movement. The crackdowns by the police were too violent, causing outrage and further protest. From now on it will be more difficult and riskier to gather and share evidence of police violence. The autonomous nature of previous protests made it hard to pressure individuals and leaders. Now enhanced surveillance will make it easier to target organisers and individual participants.

The dangers and risks of these developments are obvious. The regulation of protests will never be enough to head off a revolt, but the new measures do target a specific type of revolt. A gathering of a few hundred people puts each of its participants at risk of being observed, fined or arrested. A gathering of few thousand poses a risk to groups that get isolated or tracked down when coming or going. However, the flow of several thousand onto the streets will largely overwhelm any control, at least for a while. An important part of recent movements was their decentralised nature. The early gilets jaunes protests were not typical demonstrations with a gathering point, marching route and end point. Instead, people swarmed into an area in small groups. Over the course of 2019 the police forced the movement into controllable declared protests. The new police approach explicitly aims to shut down successful decentralised tactics.

There is still hope in a decentralised approach, but it has to develop out of good local foundations.  The gilets jaunes struggled to adapt once the police changed tactics. Being a group of people who had only just found each other and being spread across the country have made it difficult for them to keep organising. Every time they announce a return to the city centre their individual members and small groups are surrounded and isolated. Given that they are widely dispersed individuals and small groups it is very difficult for them to safely organise anything spontaneous. The Greek anarchist and anti-authoritarian space is perhaps better placed to respond. The space in Greece is a political movement but it is also a community which allows for local organisation that does not rely on observable internet posts to arrange demonstrations. There is a long tradition of neighbourhood organising. This was best demonstrated on March 13th when anarchist and leftist groups were able to mobilise thousands of people spread across a variety of Athenian neighbourhoods to create a series of local protests against the police. At a time when protests in city centres become more difficult and the ‘revolutionary stronghold’ of Exarcheia is under pressure, this dispersed and locally rooted organising becomes more important.

‘Police out of our neighbourhoods and lives’ – Athens, 2021.

In both France and Greece, the state’s reactionary policy has not gone unchallenged and its implementation in the future will surely meet opposition. The last few months in Greece, and the last several years in France, have demonstrated that increased police powers also means more social tension and resistance. This latest increase in powers may well produce the same result but it will also force movements to adapt and change. During the last crisis, the card that anarchist and popular movements had to play was the threat of revolt and insurrection. That threat is still real, but in future will be met with a more powerful and flexible force, backed by a growing surveillance apparatus, and politically shielded from criticism. At the very least the state will be able to face future opposition on the street on more favourable terms.

For those seeking political change, this is a challenge, but, ultimately, it does not change what already needed to be done. In previous years, street movements were not ready to raise their threat from revolt to revolution. Ever larger riots would have brought a different situation, but would not necessarily have opened the road to revolution. The need for movements to bridge the gaps between the periodic revolts was already apparent. For any popular movement, street mobilisations will always be an important aspect, but there is now more of a need to find activities that contribute to building political communities that can do more than occasionally meet on ground selected and monitored by the state. Successful decentralised action and long-term endurance of state repression requires the establishment of political communities.

This first year of the new phase of crisis demonstrates that the state has learnt some lessons from previous years and is implementing its response. The challenge for everyone else is to do the same.