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French ‘Occupy’ movement gets off to a slow start

Inspired by Spain’s “Indignados” and New York’s “Occupy” movements, angry French protesters have set up camp in La Défense business district west of Paris. But on the second day of the demonstration, less than half of the already few campers remain.


Like their Spanish, American and British counterparts, the “occupiers” of Paris’ key business district are protesting against the “current global financial system”: the uneven distribution of wealth; globalisation, bank bailouts and austerity measures. Heeding the call of an online campaign, at least 500 young demonstrators pitched their tents on Friday afternoon on the massive esplanade amid towering skyscrapers of multinational firms and banks.

In pictures: Protesters 'occupy' French business hub

“The goal is to set up camp and stay as long as possible,” the organisers state on the website for “Occupons la Défense”. But despite an unseasonably warm and sunny afternoon, the event failed to attract the impressive numbers its cross-Atlantic and neighbouring counterparts boasted from day one. “I was expecting more people,” said Julie, a 20-year-old participant, looking around the huddle of 20 coloured tents on the vast esplanade. “To make anything happen there needs to be a lot more of us.” Despite the disappointment, Julie wasn’t planning on giving up easily. Neither was Étienne, a 28-year-old student waiting to unfurl his tent. “I’m in it for the long term,” he said, waving his toothbrush and newspapers. “It’s not going to be easy, I know.”

Risking arrest for "a good cause"

Some ten riot police vans stood lined-up next to the protest, but the participants seemed unfazed. “We’re not stupid,” one of them told us. “We know that if we stay, we’ll get arrested. But sometimes you have to take risks for a good cause.”

At 6.30pm, the police made a first attempt to remove some of the tents, sparking a round of booing. “Don’t give up!” shouted determined campers. “They won’t do anything while the cameras are still here!” But 15 minutes later, the police made another push into the crowds, which in turn, piled into tents. “It’s harder to get rid of a tent if there are four people in it than if it’s empty,” explained one dogged camper, as the police shouted at him not to resist.

"France is not Spain"

Not everybody was as resolute. A growing number of protesters took to the outskirts of the camp for a more traditional, megaphone-enabled demonstration. By 9pm, half of the tents had disappeared. But the organisers were adamant that it wasn’t a failure and many braved through a cold rainy night.

“France isn’t Spain, where unemployment is rife, or Greece,” said Gaby, a 22-year-old student who hopes to become a farmer. “The movement is having trouble taking off because the situation in France is not that bad, but it will get bigger soon,” added Gaby. Julie agreed. “One day the French public is going to wake up, they’re going to wake up to the fact that we’re the 99% [of people who hold only 1% of wealth]. They’ll realise that we can’t allow just 1% to decide on our future and our spending.”

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