Ire of dogs: Satirical pooch brings Paris university blockade to life on Twitter
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April in Paris. Chestnuts in blossom. And placards in protest all over town. A half-century after the May 1968 uprisings, French student unrest is a seasonal classic so ancestral in its rituals as to border on farce. Enter Guevara, the sit-in dog.
It all began on April 5, ten days into Paris student activists’ blockade of the University of Paris 1’s Tolbiac campus. A 22-storey tower block in the French capital’s 13th arrondissement (district) where up to 12,000 undergraduates attend classes, the site has become a hotspot of resistance to Emmanuel Macron’s bid to reform access to French universities.
In an attempt to slash high failure rates among first-year undergraduates, a new law that passed in February seeks in part to personalise the admissions process, controversially chipping away at the principle of automatic entry for French high school graduates. Until now, places in the most popular courses of study have been attributed by drawing lots, without regard for a candidate’s grades or qualifications. For critics, any nudge towards “sélection” is sacrilege.
The self-styled Free Commune of Tolbiac occupying that campus, with numbers sometimes in the hundreds, has since March 26 been spending the night in amphitheatres, relying on supporters for provisions and voting in general assemblies, like the one on April 2 that decided the blockade would be “unlimited”, lifted only once the reform has been withdrawn.
But unhappy with “classic media” coverage of its cause, the group released a so-called self-conference on Facebook -- a sort of press conference without press or questions. The video featured three activists in colourful homemade masks and a white-bellied ginger dog, all seated – on chairs! -- behind a makeshift table with microphones. The canine-assisted mise en scène was a transparent ploy to go viral. And it worked. The video garnered half a million views on Facebook in less than a week.
The Free Commune’s human representatives are shown trumpeting motley demands and expressions of solidarity. They call for Macron to resign and for the reform to be withdrawn, while expressing support for the Kurds, railway workers and campus employees with insecure jobs.
“Why are we wearing masks?” one feminine voice in the video asks, her mouth partially obscured under a green and orange beak. “Simply because we have decided to not have a spokesperson, to not have individualities setting themselves apart from Tolbiac, but to be able to speak with a common voice,” she continued, answering her own question. At which point the dog, apparently breaking with that spirit of solidarity, ducked under the table for a lie-down.
The next morning, a Twitter-user purporting to be the very same Tolbiac dog, dispatched a first plaintive missive: “Help.”
Je m'appelle Guevara (j'ai pas choisi), je suis retenu contre mon gré depuis 1 semaine par des gens déguisés dans une fac moche.Guevara (@guevara_tolbiac) April 6, 2018
SOS. Ça pue le chichon ici.
“My name is Guevara (not my choice). I have been held against my will for the past week by people wearing disguises at an ugly uni,” he tweeted four minutes later. “SOS. It reeks of pot here.”
The mysterious Guevara describes his travails, sequestered in the student protester commune. His anecdotes, ostensibly behind the scenes on a campus occupied by young and earnest far-leftists, are a smattering of bourgeois names and wry remarks. His meagre breakfast is the debris one might salvage in a squatted Paris university: somebody called Jean-Eudes’s Converse sneaker and a Xanax.
“I bark because I’m hungry. Margot interrupts me: ‘That is such guy behaviour’. Julie tells her she is humansplaining. Margot cries.”
A vote designates a girl to go to the store and buy Guevara some kibble. But when the biscuit-buyer Maya asks for “vegan and gluten free” dog food, the grocer promptly calls the police.
The parody account’s musings are cutting satire, but not devoid of affection.
“Myrtille is playing the best of Bob Marley on her iPhone X for the fifth time,” Guevara writes, calling on French animal protection services to take action.
“In the middle of the general assembly, Virgil says he didn’t like [Québécois art house director] Xavier Dolan’s last film. Awkward silence. I let an enormous fart rip, very loudly,” he tweets, with evident satisfaction.
Some vignettes are indeed almost cinematic in scope, like French New Wave films scripted by man’s best friend. “I’m thirsty. I come upon Candice and Xavier in an odd position in the toilets on the 7th floor. I bark. Mathilde, Xavier’s girlfriend, shows up. She slaps Xavier, who tells her ‘monogamy is a capitalist invention.’ I vomit on Mathilde’s New Balance shoes.”
Guevara’s Twitter base has grown exponentially, surpassing 25,000 followers on Wednesday. With five times more followers than the Free Commune of Tolbiac’s own account, the mutinous dog has rendered moot the commune’s original intention of foregoing a spokesperson. His fans span the political spectrum, from far-left to far-right, with bankers, lawmakers and journalists in between.
There was speculation for a time that a far-right sympathiser was behind the spoof account, tweeting at far-leftist’s political expense. Guevara seemed unimpressed. “[MEMO] I inform the fascists trying to hijack my jokes that they will be disappointed. I am A DOG THAT TWEETS, guys.”
The savvy canine has managed to maintain his anonymity in press interviews, while confessing that he is neither inside Tolbiac nor currently a student, and indeed neither for nor against the blockade.
Whether or not he is actually a dog, as the famous cartoon adage suggests, may never be known.