ON THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 26, climate activist Joel Domenjoud’s day started with a phone call saying that police had broken down the doors of a friend’s squat, arresting at least two people. Fearing that his home would be next, Domenjoud slipped out of the little apartment that he shares with his girlfriend in the Paris suburb of Malakoff.
In the wake of the ISIS attacks on November 13, the French government has declared a three-month state of emergency that allows for house arrests, unwarranted searches, and limitations on the movement of people. The government also banned public demonstrations, including the massive actions that had been planned for the international climate conference, known as COP21. Numerous reports have emerged of police raids on individuals with no plausible connection to terrorism, including climate activists.
Domenjoud had been busy that week fighting in court against the ban on demonstrations and preparing alternative actions related to the climate talks, which began today. He had been awaiting the results of what is known as a référé liberté arguing that the ban violated the fundamental rights of those affected and asking an administrative judge to overturn it. The judge declined to do so.
Domenjoud had also filed papers declaring plans for a climate convoy to pass through two Parisian suburbs into the city. The convoy included occupants of a ZAD, or zone à défendre, territory in the west of France that has been occupied by activists for years to prevent developers from building an airport.
Now Domenjoud wondered if he’d be able to participate in climate conference activities at all. He stopped at a library near his home that he runs as part of an activist collective. Peering out the window, he saw what looked like cops at the back of his apartment building and decided he’d be more secure in a public place. Domenjoud ordered a coffee in a café and began calling journalists, NGO workers, and union members he knew.
“I told them, I think I will be arrested by the end of the day.”
The main square of the town, visible from the café window, seemed to be full of undercover cops. He rushed into the street and ducked into a passing bus, switching off his phone. “I had few hours to live my life,” he told me.
Safe in Le Centre International de Culture Populaire, which is something of a Parisian nerve center for social movements, Domenjoud switched his phone on. His Lebanese neighbor called. Police had swarmed the building, she said, then handed her phone to an officer, who told Domenjoud to report to the precinct within the hour.
Back in Malakoff, Domenjoud was served with a document saying he would be placed under house arrest for the full two weeks of the conference because of his alleged leadership role in planning COP21 protests. Citing the gravity of the terrorist threat and the presence of world leaders, the reasons for the arrest included his participation in COP21 preparatory meetings, his organization of workshops at a summer anti-nuclear camp in Bure, and the possibility that he might facilitate the actions of “black bloc” protesters, who are more likely to take aggressive action or disobey police.
Domenjoud is one of 24 French activists who were put under house arrest last week for planning protest actions related to the climate conference. He doesn’t know the names of most of the 23 others, but he became their de facto media spokesperson after a human rights organization included his name in a press release. “I can’t stay in the shadows if everybody knows my name,” he said. He’s not sure he would be talking otherwise. “If you become public, it is as if you were judged.”
For months before the November 13 attacks, Domenjoud worked long hours helping coordinate plans for demonstrations and meet-ups involving French and international activists who would be in Paris for the climate conference. Climate activists, including marquee names like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, were calling for disruptive actions that would exert pressure on officials to go beyond the very limited agreement to be signed at the end of two weeks.
Paris was supposed to be a launching point for activists to build a more coordinated international movement in the coming months and years against the systems that produce climate change.
On November 13, Domenjoud was sitting at a bar after a COP21 organizing meeting, when a text told him that 3 or 4 kilometers away people had been murdered in a terrorist attack. He recalls texting to another friend, “We cannot imagine what all the consequences of this will be.”
“In our heads we began deconstructing all of our plans,” Domenjoud said. “Everybody had a big fear there would be an attack on the march. Everyone was thinking about it — we were thinking about it. But there is a point where it’s your choice, not security’s choice.”
The event he helped plan for November 29 was to include hundreds of thousands of people. “This was very a big challenge for security,” he said, even before the attacks. “The state of emergency brought an answer to what they could not resolve.”
Organizers had envisioned a radical space at the march’s starting point, where those uninterested in marching in what some viewed as a parade put on by NGOs could exchange ideas and build an anti-capitalist movement. And this perhaps is one reason the authorities felt so threatened by Domenjoud. “I know there will be a radical part,” he said. “I will not be responsible for what happens. It’s a social movement.”
Domenjoud talks to everybody, he says, and wishes others would do the same. “Everyone is a little bit selfish,” he said. “Everyone could have a place if they would communicate more. Maybe there would be more black blocs taking off their hats, and there would be more radical action by the NGOs.”
Protests did go forward on Sunday, but on a much smaller scale than originally planned. Place de la République was filled with 11,000 shoes donated from around the world. By noon they had been carefully cleared, and a human chain formed on the sidewalk of the former protest route; the chain wound down Boulevard Voltaire about 2 miles to Place de la Nation, breaking only briefly as it passed the heaps of decaying roses in front of the Bataclan. In the middle of the hourlong event, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet appeared with a convoy of black security vehicles to visit the memorial.
Promptly at 1 p.m., the human chain disconnected and the activists dispersed. A smaller, more radical element appeared on Boulevard Voltaire an hour or so later, chanting and marching back toward Place de la République. Some protesters continued to march around the perimeter; other people mingled and chatted in the square as riot police moved to block all entrances to the plaza. A cloud of tear gas formed in one corner. Soon at least two other canisters were fired toward the square’s center.
Samuel Zouari, a member of a student union called Solidaires étudiant-e-s, watched as riot police began to move toward the center of the square. He said he’d come prepared to be arrested. “There were all these things about continuing to live our lives, and go out at night, and do what people think is French stuff,” he said. “To protest is a way to continue to live our lives.”
In the end, 174 people were arrested.
Domenjoud’s main role in the COP21 protest planning, he told me, was to organize a legal team, in part to provide support for those who would inevitably be arrested at protests like the one on Sunday. But his biggest obsession was with creating spaces around the conference for dialogue. “My main objective was not to have a big protest. The most important thing was to have food and accommodations,” he said. “So we could meet people in the evening, exchange addresses.”
Although he must sign in at the police precinct three times a day, Domenjoud can move around his suburban district during the day. He’s begun holding coffee hours every afternoon at 2:30 p.m. at his collective’s library, where even under police pressure, activists can come and quietly build a movement.
Top photo: Police officers search a man during a police and gendarmerie raid in a building believed to be a squat in Le Pre Saint-Gervais, northeast of Paris, on November 27, 2015.