Liberté, Equalité and DSK: Protest and the Street, Paris 2012.

A Photo Essay by Philippa Bateman

The street is, always has been, the place where those who are denied access to power have made themselves heard. In a world where virtually all our communications are mediated by technology, it shouldn’t, but does, come as a surprise to discover politically inspired street art and graffiti alive and well in Paris. Clever, direct, in your face, rude, or simply anxiety-driven scrawl—there’s a conversation going on here with the past and the passerby. And, in their blunt critique of the status quo, these graffitists talk to our times.

It’s nothing new to Paris.

Since the French Revolution in 1789 (‘Liberty, Fraternity, Equality or Death’), graffiti and the modest poster have functioned as a call to action. In May 1968, during the biggest General Strike in history Paris erupted. The prising of cobblestones from the streets by impassioned students and workers who then hurled them in revolutionary fervor, was inspired, in part, by a specific graffito: “Sous les pavés, la plage” (under the cobble stones, the beach). The meaning, with many more layers in translation than there’s space for here, suggests that beneath seemingly oppressive, immovable structures, lies freedom. Poetic and oblique but whoever wrote it, knew their history.

Photographs of the bloody seven-day battle for the Paris Commune of 1871 feature barricades made from cobblestones piled high. Today, in the streets of Bellville, birthplace of Edith Piaf and home to the headquarters of the French Communist Party, there are posters on people’s houses celebrating “140 years of the Commune: 1871- 2011”. In reality, the Paris municipal government of 1871 lasted only 3 months but it was the first time that the working class seized power during the Industrial Revolution. As is the way with French revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, whether worker or aristocrat, the end was violent and nasty. Bellville was the last barricade to fall. Defeated by the Versailles army, the communards were slaughtered and dumped in mass graves in Montmartre.

In 2012, the political conversation continues but it’s the work of individual artists and graffitists, not revolutionaries. They function outside the jurisdiction of tastemakers, galleries, advertising, media, the law and critics. Not designed to endure, the works are often painted over, stripped off or disintegrate. Famous street artists such as Banksy and JR need no introduction but, generally, street artists lie low because the ‘defacement’ of property, public and private, is usually illegal.

Then, there are those who take to the streets in broad daylight, with media cameras in tow, and risk arrest.

On a chilly, blue-skied day late in 2011, three blondes, dressed in butt-skimming maid’s outfits rigged with high-cut lingerie and garters, strode into the exquisite square known as Place des Vosges. Built in the 17thcentury and commissioned by a King, it is situated in the Marais, the home of French aristocrats prior to the First Republic and now a hot spot with tourists, boasting some of the most architecturally significant museums and monuments in Paris.

The blondes carried buckets and cleaning equipment. They approached the entrance of an apartment building on the square and began scrubbing down the doors while singing the 1970s disco track: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” (Will you sleep with me tonight?).
On to the front door, they taped a hand-painted poster bearing only one word: “Shame”. Turning around – topless – they held placards high above their heads and chanted: “Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!”. One of the placards, in French, read: “The intoxication of Power”.

The Place des Vosges residence, where the “maids” protested, is the home of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his wife, Anne Sinclair—the highly respected French journalist. DSK, as he is often called in France, is the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, charged in May 2011 with the sexual assault of a chambermaid, Nafissatou Diallo, in a New York Hotel. He pleaded not guilty and all charges were dropped when the public prosecutor developed substantial doubts about the defendant’s credibility. Forensic evidence proved that a sexual encounter had occurred;DSK had already resigned from the IMF and lost his run for the French Presidency as leader of the Socialist Party.

The “maids” were members of a Ukrainian feminist group, Femem, who had traveled to France to protest the dropping of sexual assault charges against DSK in New York. It was a timely reminder, in an age of disembodied technological communications how powerful and shocking a bare-breasted demonstration at one of the most exclusive addresses in Paris can be.

The French people were shaken by the DSK arrest in New York and the press, often criticized for steering clear of the personal lives of those in power, have stepped across the line that once separated public and private. (Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Anne Sinclair have responded with lawsuits and legal threats.)

As 2012 begins, France continues to take the hits. Its fiercely defended Triple-A rating has been stripped by one ratings agency. There are rising debt levels, strikes, flat growth, and unemployment bumping just below 10%. There’s racism but the constitution that insists every French citizen is free, equal, and a brother doesn’t recognize the contemporary discrimination that is suffered by people with an Arabic name when applying for jobs, or generations of people whose grandparents arrived arrived decades ago and haven’t moved from the projects on the outskirts of Paris.

President Sarkozy who told the nation in a televised interview that “We are entering a new world”, has called an election in April. He is currently inexact about what he and his conservative party intend to cut, not wanting to invoke the dirtiest word of all in the Euro zone: austerity.

It is, often, in darkening times that the street gets louder.

Recently, as I stood on a corner by Notre Dame teeming with tourists, an elderly French man stepped off the curb at a pedestrian crossing and was almost knocked over by a motorcade of black official cars with tinted windows. He stepped back and they continued to fly by, clearly with no intention of stopping. Suddenly, he raised his cane. In formal French, audible above the roar, he addressed each car as it passed, “Please, after you sir…and you, sir… and you, sir”. A small crowd standing close by, the irony not lost on them, burst into applause.

POSTSCRIPT: In 2015, I saw a documentary The Ukraine is not a Brothel made by Australian director Kitty Green who spent 14 months living with and hanging out with with members of Femem. I won't print the spoiler, and irony of how this group is run, but see it, if you haven't already.

Published originally with a photo essay by Philippa Bateman in The Global Mail, Founding Editor Monica Attard. February 2012.

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