By Thomon - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Recentering the side-lines. On the politics of “standing by”

Manifestation 1

I had not planned to encounter three different types of crowds on Saturday 16th March 2019. Ascending from the metro station Château-Rouge in the 18th arrondissement in Paris, I found myself surrounded by people apparently eagerly waiting for something to happen or someone to appear. There was music playing from a truck to my left side, and there were blue flags with a yellow star in the upper left corner and a red stripe across – the national flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I noticed that I was nearly the only white person watching what I estimated to have been around 1000 people gathering at the intersection of Bd. Barbès and rue Poulet, effectively bringing traffic to a halt with their bodies. There were some passers-by whose body language signaled irritation and disinterest: tourists on their way to Sacré-Cœur, eager to get lost, made their way up the hill and left the residents of Montmartre behind where the atmosphere seemed both cheerful and charged.

I noticed a multitude of cell phones held up high in the air. One man climbed a lamppost to get a better overview for his video. In the evening, I watched some such footage on private YouTube channels; some was even embedded in official news reports such as this one (RFI Afrique). I asked a fellow bystander, a woman in her forties, what was going on and she explained said that “we are waiting for our President, Martin Fayulu.” She also clarified that the acting President was someone else – Félix Tshisekedi – but that he had “stolen the peoples’ votes.” This was a march in support of their candidate’s rightful claim to the Presidency. A few minutes later, Fayulu appeared in the crowd, waving from the open sunroof panel of a black limousine. People began to follow the slowly moving car, with their cell phones still raised, recording the words he was shouting, which were hard to understand from where I was standing. Later, RFI Afrique quoted Fayulu as follows:

The goal is to let everyone know that there was cheating, that there was an electoral hold-up and make it clear to everyone that the Congo cannot be on the side-lines of democracy, that is to say, for example, to institute the rule “who loses-wins” (“qui perd-gagne”).

Fayulu and his followers were denouncing the current acting Congolese President here in France, the country whose own President had just met up with Tshisekedi at the One Planet Summit in Kenya. In a way, the Congolese diaspora in Paris was sidelined, having to passively watch their country’s political drama from afar and suffer President Macron’s diplomatic encounter with Tshisekedi. But the engagement of the attendants signaled otherwise: Hadn’t they organized and realized this march, weren’t they taking up space both physically in the streets of Paris, as well as in international news that day? Hadn’t their candidate shown up, hadn’t he realized that here, in the metropole of France, fellow Congolese would be able to see him for who he really was? Montmartre was not on the side-lines – it had become the center of a manifestation whose participants were winners and losers at the same time.

Manifestation 2

I left the singing and chanting crowd behind and walked down the hill towards the 8th arrondissement. At the riverbank, I noticed an increasingly noisome smell in the air. It was only then that I became aware of the incessant sound of police sirens around me and the whirring of helicopter blades. The smoke was getting stronger and people stopped in the narrow streets, looking up, starting conversations with others who had sensed the same, a large black cloud had gathered over our heads and the air became increasingly unbreathable. Shopkeepers left their premises and walked into the streets, tourists got up from their tables on the pavements to get a better view. Some people came running towards me, while others seemed unimpressed by the event, continuing in the direction of the cloud.

Remembering a recent explosion in a Parisian bakery, which was reported immediately worldwide even before it was clear whether it had been an accident or a terror attack, I decided to turn away. Entering the Boulevard des Italiens, I suddenly found myself in an empty street – no traffic, and only few people. I spotted three agitated men talking and shouting in the middle of the boulevard: two members of the gilet jaunes-movement engaged in what seemed to be a heated conversation with a man dressed in a duffle coat. Judging from the latter’s body language and facial expressions, I imagined him trying to “talk sense” into the two gilets jaunes, who, in response, laughed, shrugged off his remarks, turned around and moved on along the empty street. There were now more members of the movement following them, all coming from the direction of the Champs Elysees, which was over half an hour’s walk away, and one could have thought that they were going home from work, which in a sense they were. It was only then that I noticed the amount of destruction that surrounded me: broken glass on the pavement in front of the high-end cafés and designer stores. But also flower tubs and garbage bins that had been knocked over and dragged into the streets along with other containers and food trailers, all used to erect make-shift barricades. Further down the street there was also a burned-out newspaper kiosk, of which only charred metal remained. So, while private capital had been targeted, public property had been destroyed as well. While I had been aware of the demonstrations that had been going on over eighteen consecutive Saturdays, I had neither planned nor expected to encounter gilets jaunes-activities in this area, but even staying away from the Champs Elysees, where the manifestations had been most intense so far, could not guarantee avoiding the unrest that day.

In the evening, all news channels covered what had turned out to have been a particularly rough day in Paris. The media coverage focused on a “kill the rich”-graffiti, on a man wielding a chainsaw in the area around Arc de Triomphe, and on repeated footage of acts of destruction. This appeared extremely one-sided to me, as acts of police violence were shared only on social media. It was also on social media that I first found out that President Macron, who had returned from the summit in Kenya, had gone skiing in the Pyrenees for the weekend with his wife.

For an outsider like me, who only lived in Paris for a month, it was difficult to obtain unambiguous information about the “yellow vest”-movement, whose members usually are not residents of the city itself but come from the structurally disadvantaged countryside. Several online sites of the gilets jaunes are “under construction,” others will give you access only once you become a “member” and register. It turned out (in retrospect) to be fairly easy to access maps in order to see where and when protests and actions would take place, but less easy to read up on the movement’s organizational structure. Although internet users are encouraged to join up for “membership,” organizers tend to downplay the corporate aspect of their movement. On the site, for example, the “Who we are” section reads as follows:

We are a small team of volunteers who answer and advise you since October 26. We are the same team that created the official map of the rallies (35 million views). We do not belong to any party or political organization.” (my translation)

The tension between temporary “membership” signaled by putting on yellow vests, the need for virtual registration, and the rejection of any association with a “political organization” was perplexing: members without a group who register online for coordination. Another online site focuses more or less solely on the importance of organization for the self-proclaimed “militants,” invoking the common good, the “resistance” and various other popular tropes:

Both sites seem to reflect a desire for rather than de facto organization, while being careful to disavow association with any established institution. Whatever the political alignments, the information these sites release is multiplex or even inchoate, as it does not reveal a joint political message but rather speaks with a multitude of (often conflicting) voices. While one might argue that this allows the movement to go beyond established political categories and might even be one of its characteristics, the resulting multitude makes it difficult for by-standers to decode.

The reactions towards the gilets jaunes among my French colleagues and friends, both academic and non-academic, varied greatly. While some supported their demands, highlighting the need for labor reforms and criticizing the elitist and populist politics of Macron in particular, others were critical, emphasizing that right-wing extremists had managed to partly hijack the platform or that others are “in it” for the sheer joy of destroying public property. Finally, among Parisians, I noticed a strong sentiment of not taking “them” seriously. Many considered the gilets jaunes as outsiders, as people from rural areas with problems and concerns that they as city-zens did not share. The more systemic character of “those others who are coming into town” was revealed to me when I had coffee in my neighborhood a couple of days later, and a group of tourists on electric bikes cycled by, all wearing yellow vests for the sake of better visibility. “Attention! Les gilets jaunes!” screamed one person at a table next to me and other patrons at various tables began laughing. Another friend, herself a Parisian but living in Germany, sent a photograph to me on her recent trip back home showing a single man wearing a yellow vest and carrying the French flag. She subtitled the picture with the sentence “I have found one! [two smileys],” as if having spotted an exemplar of a rare species.

Picking up the sensual remains of a devastated landscape in the center of Paris that day in March, I felt I had become a bystander to political protest a second time. But not only me: thousands of others who populated the city partly watched and partly ignored the goings-on. We had not come out to protest, we had not even intended to witness, but we fully participated in “standing by.”

But my day was not over yet: I decided to continue towards rue St. Anne, into a quarter with mostly Japanese restaurants and shops. I was surprised to see the French Gendarmerie, a branch of the French armed forces, in full riot gear with military-grade weapons standing outside of noodle shops and antique stores. They were on a different kind of “stand-by”: not sure of their role, as I and others were, but passive (if intimidating) and waiting for orders.

Later during the week, I learned that the Gendarmerie is now being called upon more frequently to join the regular police force as the demands for abstract “security” had increased to such an extent that the police was given this (questionably proportional) support. After the French Prime Minister dismissed the head of the Paris police force in the aftermath of the gilets jaunes marches on Saturday 16 March, he had even ordered the deployment of anti-terror forces, the so-called dispositif Sentinelle, to maintain “law and order,” effectively turning Paris into a militarized zone.

 Manifestation 3

I made my way towards Les Halles, a run-down but much beloved shopping center in the middle of Paris that, especially at the weekend, turns into a meeting point for Parisian youth. It is always crowded in this area, but when I arrived at the entrance to Les Halles, I found the glass doors shut and protected by private security personnel in uniform, with muzzle-wearing German shepherds by their side. Positioned just behind the glass doors, they blocked everyone from entering the premises. I backed off and had decided to go home, when suddenly a group of about thirty youngsters began screaming and running away from the steep stairway. I noticed how quickly the people around me reacted, and for a few seconds I contemplated joining everyone in running, without knowing why. Instead, I just walked faster, still undecided how to respond. My heart was racing and my eyes swiveled left and right, trying to make sense of the situation.

“This is how it feels be when you are in the middle of a terrorist attack,” I found myself thinking; my previous encounters with the riot police in rue St. Anne had shifted my perception into high alert. But even then, I continued thinking in the abstract, still disbelieving that this was truly a dangerous situation. I remained on the side-lines a third time that day, even as I somehow picked up my pace in the wake of the others.

Eventually, I was running, too; only then did I realized that the whole situation had been set up as some sort of “breaching experiment”: The group of young people had staged an emergency, and succeeded in locking a large number of previously unrelated and non-interacting humans into a joint activity and interpretation of the situation. They had violated common-sense rules of public behavior; I assume because it empowered them, it gave them a rush of adrenaline, it made them feel in charge and made them laugh afterwards. Us others, who became part of their ethnomethodological exercise, had turned from Saturday shoppers, by-standers, and hanging-outers to a crowd that suddenly had something in common: fear. I could see it on their faces, I could sense it in the way the people dispersed in all directions within seconds, I could feel it inside my own chest.

The involuntarily communitas evaporated quickly and the rush petered out, as people realized that there was no discernible “source” to the sense of alarm (apart from a group of kids laughing) and no follow-up occurred. I was fed up, I felt tricked and angry that I had fallen for what turned out to be a sick joke and I decided to call it a day, walking back home across Pont Neuf and through St. Germain where everyday life seemed to go on as usual.

On the politics of standing by

The day left an impression on me: On three different occasions, I had become involved in collective types of behavior while standing on the side-lines. In Montmartre, I stood by a crowd that had been formed and was about to move. On the Boulevards, the crowd had already dispersed but left their mark, and in Les Halles, it formed and dispersed in front of my eyes. The types of demonstration that I stood by were markedly different: in Montmartre, it was a political manifestation of a diaspora population with their President that was realized on the territory of another state. On the Boulevards, it was a political manifestation of citizens against their own state, and at Les Halles it was a manifestation that was political in the sense that it piggybacked on globally circulating discourses of de-territorialized terror, thus independently of statehood and indiscriminately of the participating members’ backgrounds. Here, the French word manifestation shows its aptness to cover all three events.

What united the events for me is that I felt I had no say in any of them. I did not belong, nor did I know what was going on. Yet in all three cases, I did take part as my body was “added up” to the number of other bodies present. The events made me think of the relation between political action and the side-lines. In the anthropology of the state, we have had long-lasting discussions about approaching “the state” tangentially by re-centering its “margins,” investigating its borders or its infrastructural materializations. But, in the arena of national politics, there is a widespread moral expectation that citizens should be informed about politics and exert agency to “take part” rather than merely “standing by” apathetically. Especially in light of the recent (ethno-)nationalist shifts towards the right in Europe, there has been an increasing demand on people to not close their eyes to the right’s attempts to claim the streets.

In ethnomethodological studies, the acquisition of “membership knowledge” is regarded as a prerequisite for being able to analyze the practices of the actors the researcher intends to study. But what kind of knowledge is there to be acquired if a crowd consists mostly by-standers? In these instances of collective behavior, the emphasis cannot be on knowledge or on being able to “read” a certain situation, let alone participation proper. It is more about feeling one’s way through, working with one’s fallible senses and intracorporeal interaction that aligns one’s movement and pace with those of others.

What if situations such as the ones I found myself are more than a dysfunctional by-product of politics? Should we not reconceptualize the very practice of “standing by” as central aspect of politics? Is “standing by” without sufficient information and no personal commitment not what characterizes the de facto political position of a majority?

It is not the case that we now live in more politicized societies than previous generations did or that political fragmentation is “the new normal.” The difference is that most of us are regular by-standers of political action, and are as such involved in the production of a particular kind of political public sphere that impacts all our lives in tremendous ways – we get inured to the presence of armed forces in our streets, we are no longer surprised to breathe in teargas or burned rubber, and we normalize avoiding certain areas during certain times of the day or night, or circumvent crowds altogether. But is “standing by” as political as throwing stones? While we have known for a long time that those who “knew” and yet did nothing were an essential element of historical wrongs, “knowing” is problematic when it comes to manifestations as the ones I described. “Standing by” depends on not fully knowing; it also smudges the distinction between full members and people who think of themselves merely “at the side-lines” of political action.

To end on methodology, I would argue that becoming “anthropological by-standers” is a pragmatic approach to studying how most people experience public politics. While the investigation of movements, resistance and direct action remains essential, joining the tourists in sipping their 5€ expresso as a black cloud of burning rubber hangs over their heads, observing the police forces who are told to “stand by” until new orders are given and hanging out on street corners, thus turning our eyes away from the immediate “action” for a moment helps us assume the perspectives of those on the side-lines. Because it is there that the majority of us become part of public politics.

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