January 1995. It’s midnight and I’m sitting in my apartment on Grand Canal St. in Dublin’s South Inner City, half watching tv while thinking to myself how shit it is. Channel 4 is on and the pointless pop-culture show that I’m watching limps to its over-excited end. Listless and half-asleep, I let the ads roll.

Manufacturing Consent image: poster – 1992

Some stupid documentary comes on. I pay attention for a moment – just to identify the category of late-night crapness that it belongs too – sensationalist rubbish? marketing? corporate propaganda? sales?

A man whom I have never heard of before addresses the camera. He calmly and lucidly describes how the world works. He outlines a world-view that I implicitly share, but one that I would never have been able to elucidate. I had never heard anything remotely like this before. He explains to me why my instinctive distrust of the media, corporations and the post-cold-war new world order is reasonable and well-placed and why I feel swamped by their propaganda. He explains it rationally, through mechanisms that I know and understand. I feel like an idiot for not piecing it together myself.

After a while he moves on to talk about alternatives – he describes himself as a libertarian socialist, an anarchist and refers to the anarcho-syndicalist movements of Spain. The documentary was ‘Manufacturing Consent’ and the subject was Noam Chomsky and he spoke to my soul.

Friday, December 8th, 1995. I have just arrived in Paris. The air is crisp and cold: a typical Parisian Winter day, a couple of degrees below freezing. The pavements are thronged with pedestrians rushing hither and tither as is usual in a big city. They share the space with vendors roasting chestnuts on metal-barrel braziers full of charcoal. Today they are doing a roaring trade as small bunches of people huddle around warming themselves while waiting to buy the hot snacks in cones of rolled up newspaper.

None of this is unusual. What makes the scene different from any other Winter’s day in a French city is that the pedestrians are also sharing the footpaths with bicycles and motorbikes, who are picking their way laboriously through the crowds. These two wheeled vehicles are using the pavements, despite their slow and difficult progress, for a simple reason: there is no space on the roads. Every square inch is occupied by cars, cars that are mostly stationary, just occasionally advancing in little lurching hops whenever a couple of inches becomes free in front of them.

In some parts of the city the logjam is absolute with motorists abandoning their cars and continuing their journeys on foot. The great monumental square of Place de Concorde looks like a vast, irregular jigsaw – cars and buses are crammed together, pointing in every direction, in such a way that it is difficult to imagine how they could have arrived at such a configuration without being dropped in from above.  The whole city is at a standstill and it has persisted for several days. 

Gridlock in Paris image: December 1995

The reason for this state of affairs? Une grève générale – a general strike. 

The strike was a response by the trade-unions to the plan of the newly elected presidency of Jacques Chirac to institute labour market reforms that would, among other things, increase retirement ages in the public sector.  The reform agenda was spearheaded by the new Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, and was popularly known as le plan Juppé. It was generally considered as a harbinger of the arrival of Thatcherite neo-liberal economic policies in France.

The strike had been brewing among the civil service for several weeks before spreading to the railway workers’ unions who had succeeded in totally stopping all rail transport within the capital.  This was the direct cause of the log-jam that was visible on the streets.  The great underground arteries of the city had disgorged their commuter traffic to the surface and the streets proved totally incapable of coping with the strain.  Under the weight of numbers, the whole country had gone into total shutdown.  Many shops and offices were closed for want of commuting workers, creating a great cumulative domino effect that had stopped the country’s economic life dead in its tracks.

To my newly radicalised eyes, the vision of this great city paralysed by such a strike was impressive.  A relatively small percentage of France’s workers were unionised – less than 15% at the time. It was only one small section of these – the railway workers – who had caused the shutdown by withdrawing their labour and blockading the trains.  This brought home to me the fragile and inter-dependent nature of modern economic life: take away one key part and the whole thing just freezes up. What’s more, it illustrated in a very concrete way the potential power of workers’ organisation – when an important sector acted in a coordinated and determined fashion, there was little that could stop them.

Rail workers blockade a TGV image: Paris, December 1995

But, what was most surprising to me, coming from the conservative political backwater of Ireland, was not the strike itself, it was the manner in which the population reacted to it.  In Ireland, when a group of workers withdraws their labour to produce even the smallest inconvenience to the general population, they typically face a storm of negative reaction for having the cheek to “hold the country to ransom”.  Much of this is generated through the media rather than arising from the population, but it almost always finds a strong resonance among the public.  Even those who may sympathise with the workers over whatever the issue might be are liable to be swayed by the experience of having to put up with prolonged disruption to their daily lives. 

In Paris in 1995 the situation was as different as could be.  Opinion polls showed that the strike, which had put many people’s lives on hold for weeks on end, remained overwhelmingly popular.  Even the right wing press was generally measured and conciliatory in the tone of its coverage.  And the disruption of the core strikers was backed up by a myriad of smaller stoppages, occupations, protests, marches and rallies by other workers and students.  Almost every university in the country was under occupation and played host to huge popular assemblies, debates, lectures, free kitchens and workers’ restaurants. A spirit of new possibilities was palpable in the air over the thronged Parisian boulevards.

Later I would come to understand why this particular strike was so solid, disciplined and well supported by the population – it rested on left-wing ideas that had deep cultural roots in the broader society.  But at the time, it simply seemed like the natural order of things according to the ideas that I had been consuming since the start of the year.  The working class was flexing its muscles against the chains of capitalist oppression! This is what I had been expecting.

I had travelled to Paris with Simon McDonnell, an old buddy with whom I had gone on many trips.  We were visiting some Irish friends, John and Tinky, who were living in a small apartment just off Place de la Republique.  That giant square is the entrance to the North East quadrant of Paris, the traditional working class area of the city, which had been the source of countless uprisings over the centuries.  We had arrived from a quiescent Dublin with little more than a week’s holiday on our minds, scarcely aware that anything out of the usual awaited us.  On that Friday morning, we stepped into an atmosphere that was quite different to what we had expected.

Myself, John and Simon spent the day walking through the packed, freezing streets, observing the shuttered shops, physical proof of the changed situation.  We visited assemblies in universities and random occupied buildings, all the while drinking in the atmosphere of social upheaval.  Before long we supplemented the insurrectionary fumes with old-fashioned intoxicating drinks, moving from bar to bar, listening to groups of Parisians arguing out the issues of the day.  We wandered through the Latin quarter, by the Sorbonne and Jussieu universities – the heart of the student organising effort.  Somewhere along the way, we met up with an old friend from Dublin, Macdara Smith, a mischievous artist who had made his home in Paris. Our revels took us through the drinking dens of Rue Mouffetarde, along the banks of the Seine, sharing drinks and conversation with bands of similarly intoxicated revellers. 

Me and Simon McDonnell, Grand Canyon Simon was my traveling companion throughout much of the 1990s. 15 Sep 1994 image: Helen O’Connell

By the time that we came to stumble home through the maze of tiny streets of the Marais we had drank easily enough not to notice the freezing temperatures.  The combination of intoxication by alcohol and the charged atmosphere was also more than enough to remove our ability to discriminate between sensible and stupid.  As we approached the entrance to John and Tinky’s apartment building, we passed a supermarket which had a glass-fronted cheese stall all along its facade that was secured by nothing more than a tarpaulin tied over its top.  At one end of the stall, we noticed what was the biggest cheese that I had ever seen in my life – a wheel maybe 1.5 metres in diameter and 50cm deep.  We decided, in our inebriated state, that we would liberate this cheese. I recall telling myself that this expropriation was justified because it would be striking a blow against the undoubtedly capitalistic corporation that had expropriated it from the labour of its rightful proletarian owners.  However, even in my inebriated state, I didn’t really believe this to be true.  

a situationist stance: a pointless, gratuitous action after having spent a couple of days “en flanerie’, strolling erratically around the city.

For in truth, the expropriation of the cheese had very little political content at all.  It was closer to a drunken prank than any political action, even if it was a while before I admitted that to myself.  The others were more honest. Macdara, who has a beautiful way with words, considered it as having “a situationist stance to it: a pointless, gratuitous action after having spent a couple of days “en flanerie’, strolling erratically around the city.” And while the atmosphere of social upheaval that was in the Parisian air undoubtedly influenced our actions, the real attraction was the absurdity of the idea of stealing a huge cheese. 

Macdara was given the job of keeping lookout, while Simon untied the tarpaulin and John lifted a corner of it, just enough to allow me to grab the cheese.  Everything went according to plan until I went to lift the cheese out of the stall.  It must have weighed 30kg and it was a great effort to get it out.  Nonetheless, my determination won out and I hauled it over the edge and onto the pavement.  I took off my coat to try to conceal our prize, but it was far too large and the coat would not close around it. I proceeded to stagger towards the apartment entrance, a comical sight carrying a huge round cheese with an overcoat draped half over it, like a giant pacman dressed for Winter. The others raced ahead to the entrance door to the apartment and started urging me to run towards them. 

I did not understand why their urgings were so insistent, but continued to waddle as fast as I could. As I reached the door, I was greatly surprised to feel a hand grab me by the collar from behind.  I looked around to see a uniformed security guard with an Alsatian dog by his side, which was snarling at me and straining against its leash in an attempt to sink its teeth into me.  In his other hand, the guard brandished a weapon of some sort, with which he was warding off my comrades who had emerged from the apartment door and formed a semi-circle in front of us, just far enough away so that the dog could not reach them.  I could now see that the weapon was a can of some sort, which I assumed to be pepper spray or some similarly unpleasant gas. 

Within a couple of seconds a car screeched to a halt behind me. I was suddenly rudely thrown across its bonnet and had my face pressed forcefully into the metal by an unseen person who approached me from behind.  Before I could think of reacting, I had my arms pinned behind my back and felt handcuffs being snapped around my wrists. 

Restrained in this manner, it took me a few minutes to figure out what had happened.  The security guard had observed the entire thing from a car across the road (our lookout Macdara later told us that he had noticed somebody in a car watching us but had thought it wasn’t worth mentioning – note for posterity: artists make bad criminal accomplices: they daydream too much).  Rather than warning us off before we could liberate the cheese, the guard had allowed us to continue and had phoned the gendarmes.  He had only apprehended me when he saw that we were about to escape into the apartment building. 

Without much delay I was thrown into the back of an unmarked police car and the evidence, in the form of the enormous cheese, was put into the car’s trunk – it took both officers to haul it in.  The gendarmes briefly admonished my comrades, then jumped back into the car and took off into the night with me shackled in the back.

Oh shit.

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