La Défense

It’s not in the news, barely even in French news, but there is an Occupy encampment here in Paris. It’s just not at Hôtel de Ville. It’s at La Défense, Paris’ main financial district on the Western edge of the city that emerged in the 70s and 80s and is now the largest purpose-built business district in Europe. The district completes the Westernmost end of the Axe historique, which is a straight line leading from the Louvre through the Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe and ending at La Grande Arche, the iconic modern monument of La Défense. Originally, the axe historique allowed the King a grand vista from the Louvre (his palace) straight to the Western end of the city.

It was there that I went last weekend to attend the general assembly of Occupons La Défense. I had never been to La Défense before, always being vaguely curious about its famous architecture, so as I first stepped off the metro I was immediately struck by the enormity of La Grande Arche, and the glitz of the surrounding financial buildings. Considering Paris is one of the most well-preserved European cities, with countless buildings and cathedrals hundreds of years old and only one skyscraper, this modern outpost could be Paris’ polar opposite. According to Wikipedia, construction of La Grande Arche began in 1985 after Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel won a design competition initiated by then-French president François Mitterand. Apparently, they intended the monument to serve as a 20th-century version of the Arc de Triomphe, honoring humanity and humanitarian ideals rather than military victories. Of course, the building was inaugurated with grand military parades at the bicentennial of the French Revolution. And looking at it today, the stark grey and silver angles of the structure remind me of anything but “humanitarian ideals.”

The Grande Arche would not fit in my viewfinder

View from below

"Defense" against what? View further West toward Nanterre, where thousands of North African immigrants settled into government housing in the 60s and 70s.

So it is amidst this backdrop that Occupy-Paris has set up camp. The campers and the general assembly that drew many more outsiders are nowhere near as numerous as in other European countries or when compared with the US. Yep, miraculously enough the US has France beat on this round of protesting. And though I did not directly paricipate in discussion, opting for quiet observation instead (at least this time around), my presence felt all the more crucial because of the fewer numbers. And the people at this Occupy encampment were as fiery and determined as ever.

At the general assembly I was once again struck by the international nature of this movement. Much of the opening comments concerned assertions of solidarity with other Occupy encampments and with other struggles around the world, including in Syria and other Arab nations. A man from Portugal passed on an update from there, describing the recent 100,000-strong protest in Porto, as well as the planned general strike that took place on November 24th. Someone from New York gave an update on the original Occupy Wall Street encampment, and behind me a clean-cut young man from Geneva quietly asked a dreadlocked, tattooed French man for suggestions about how they were running the camp at la Défense, as he was having trouble organizing the Geneva occupiers. Everyone seemed to agree that while protests in France have not been as large as in places like Spain, Portugal, and Greece, presumably because France is a little better off economically for the moment, this was all the more reason to assert the importance of humanity over finance at the heart of one of the biggest European powerhouses.

One idea that particularly stuck with me was that of creating an alternative currency to replace the Euro, a currency that could not be controlled by banks but could only move from person to person, thus challenging the current hierarchical financial structure. Obviously, I have no idea how such a thing might come about logistically, but it made me think about the monopoly of finance over human life, and the way that “money” is taken as a self-evident form of exchange that makes it so the “99%” is subject to every whim of the international “market.” (Which is, I might argue, actually a system created and reinforced by the “1%.”)

The Occupy assembly against the backdrop of financial buildings

One of my favorite Banksy quotes in French. "We cannot eat money."

If La Grande Arche didn’t do it, at least this small but determined Occupy encampment is asserting the importance of “humanitarian ideals” over financial and military institutions.