For the last year of his mandate, François Hollande’s socialist government foments a law to « modernise labour rights », coined the « Work ! Bill ». It is a methodical destruction of the few remaining social gains that French workers still have.
From the 8th of March, the youth publish social media calls to protest and begin to gather in the street. They are joined, later, by the labour unions. The movement last more than four months, at a rhythm of several demonstrations per week. It is the longest series of protests in the contemporary history of France. There are so many stories to tell about these incredible months, which never the less failed to cancel the bill. There were the blockades of refineries and the risks of oil shortages, the assemblies on the squares and the “Nuit Debout”  experience, the high school blockades and a wealth of slogans reminiscent of May 68, the threat of ruining the Euro football championship, the lootings and the street parties. But what indisputably marked the minds and political practices most durably erupted within the demonstrations themselves : the cortège de tête (the head of the march).
What has been, for so many years, designated as the margin of the French social movements, has taken central space in the protests this spring. The tail has moved to the front in a salutary reversal, or rather politics has been turned inside out, back to what it should always have been. Those who organise so that taking the streets is always combative, those who refuse to give in when faced with the police and give flesh to the famous slogan “it is going to kick off”, have taken a major place in the struggle.
“Cortège de tête ” : the expression resonated powerfully, a new kind of cluster grew within the most lively demos of the spring, especially in Paris, Rennes and Nantes.
Usually the front of the march is a spot that is jealously guarded by trade unions and political organisations. It’s the place for representation, leaders go there to prance about, and be photographed together behind a unifying banner. But this year, the movement was not launched on their initiative. The legitimacy to take the lead was therefore naturally that of the youth, without whose mobilisation nothing would have started. The union apparatus, stuck between a rock and a hard place, had to eventually jump on the band wagon, which this time was at the back of the march. This was an unprecedented situation that was far from obvious for the various organisations’ stewards, normally used to managing the entire march in their own style. In Nantes, a significant clash took place as early as the 17th of March. The windows of the town hall had just been smashed when an uncalled for incursion by a steward from the CGT  led to some strong-armed exchanges, which ended with one of the ill mannered unionist being entirely covered in paint. Following this misadventure, the leardership of the local union reminded stewards of their mandate : stick to the CGT crowd/cortege and let the youth in front do their own thing.
Steadfast in its position on the front line, the cortege de tête gives the rhythm, the tempo, the slogans. It looks and feels like a spontaneous un-permitted demo. It goes to the front and thus benefits from the support of all those who follow. Its position confers upon it a particular force. Its banner is the most visible, its slogans the most audible. It grows as time passes. The more the cortege is stopped by cops, the bigger the clashes - and the bigger the clashes, the more people tend to stroll up to the front of the march to see check out what is going on. From one rendez vous to the next, whilst the cops gas, beat up and mutilate us , those who want, at the very least to defend themselves from them, know where to find their accomplices. From mid-March, the whole front of the cortege in Nantes had forms of protection, against tear gas, albeit sometimes rudimentary. The violence, far from destroying the movement, generates new affects, makes strangers talk to each other, forces them to take sides, even to take part. The cortege in this debate acts as a point of agregation, one that is physical as much as political. Bit by bit, it taps into rebellious desires, into the rage, the swarm of disobedient bodies, the unresigned and the ungovernable.
Unlike an organisation, it manages nothing. At most, it gives directions, and sometimes makes choices and gambles upon the itinerary to pick. It doesn’t really “launch” spontaneous demos ; it “extends” the procession a subtle difference that sometimes proves decisive. If it aims for a target, it just has to bifurcate, or to make everyone wait for those that have split off to do the action come back safely amidst the crowd. Behind the reversal of positions in the demonstration, a political opening is at work. One that is sensitive to the unknown, to chance, to everyone’s spontaneity, and to the surprises that comes with it.
At the same time, the acts that emanate from it take on meaning. They come from somewhere. The destruction of a bank or facing off with the police. It is no longer as easy to turn these into nihilistic gestures and opportunistic vandalism, when the whole march owns up to them and together chants reasons for these gestures. So much so that Aissato Dabo, spokesperson for the student coalition, pressed to condemn the “eruptions” by journalists from the TV, retorted on April 9th : “We have all decided that we won’t disassociate from those you call ‘vandals’’”.
“vandals are to demontrations what looters used to be to armies during rural campaigns. They follow the troops and take advantage of the trouble on the way to cause the worst violence. They were no more soldiers than there were striking workers or students today.”
Presse-Océan, December 1995
The cortege de tête is a self-named form that contests the symbolic, imaginary and political figure of the “vandal”. This explains why the media, which are usually so fond of new catch phrases and identities, have never used it, preferring the usual dismissive term ’vandal’, brandished by the state everytime things step out of line, so as to gut any politics from a practice reprimanded by the Law.
The cortege de tete doesn’t have any spokesperson, it is the exact opposite of a “carré de tête” (the traditional front bloc of the march). There, even less than anywhere else, one can’t recognise the masked up faces. The media struggle to find representatives to answer their questions. There are few flags, or signs of political affiliation. Its expression is generally via slogans and graffiti. Often, when it is dressed in dark colours, waterproof jackets and gas masks, it resembles a black bloc. But there is a difference because it rarely maintains such somber homogeneity. The front banner with its cluster of dark clothed bodies soon attracts a throng of young people with a simple scarf or maybe a coloured cap, or passers by who drop their shopping list to join the adventure.
However the cortege shares some functions with the Black Bloc : it makes the polices actions more complicated and even more so that of the courts. If not everyone is meticulously anonymous , unrecognisable and untouchable, it is still more complicated to identify and arrest a participant. Responding to the multiple evidence gathering images, captured by cops and their drones and helicopters, or even demonstrators themselves, a certain spirit of impunity embeds itself into the Cortege de tete. It doesn’t at all mean that everyone takes part in the actions, but rather that everyone supports the acts that are carried out.
When faced with police charges, and in the face of arrest the cortege de tete becomes a bastion . It does that via the brandishing shields made of painted road signs, reinforced banners  and gas masks. It is fond of everything that deserts the nice regulated ways to demonstrate. It is a raw desire which progressively gets filled with experience and meaning. Here a megaphone discloses police manoevers, over there a portable sound system provides the tempo of crowd movements with cumbia. Further away, people stop for a long while to clap and cheer the spectacular make over of a bank. The tension that is normally generated by a march arriving somewhere or reaching a fixed clear target, gives way to a collective attention to all the disorderly exploits emerging from this motley crew.
Explosive, heterogeneous and with a variable geometry, the cortege is nonetheless organised. The different groups at its heart prepare the demonstration, bringing ideas and materials. The cortege de tete is multi-headed, an organised space for those who do not organise in an organisation. Its recurrent appearances have given the opportunity to all those who wished to get familiar with its style, and to everyone to choose the level of commitment that they wanted to have within it. Some walk a few steps ahead, some only feel good when embedded in its heart. Time has allowed the people of Nantes, at first surprised, to tame it bit by bit.
The cortege de tête doesn’t just respond to police pressure in the street. It responds also to the impossibility to genuinely occupy universities and high schools. In ten years, since the mobilisation against the CPE, French social movements have lost these decisive space for organisation and communal living. The cortege de tête is the only temporary and nomadic house of the movement. Demonstrations are over-invested as the only non-virtual community space. This is a genuine street movement (one could thus oppose it to strikes that tend to take place within the companies buildings), which organises on the asphalt itself. Obviously the temporality of a demonstration is not that of a strike, and this is not without questioning the possibility to get truly organised in such a framework. The frenzied and sporadic rhythm gives a weird texture to the bonds and solidarities that emerge from it, to this community that exists without having the possibility to solidify beyond the day, and that doesn’t even seem to wish to.
The ever changing dimension of such a commons has a positive corollary, belonging to it is un-ascribable and impossible to circumscribe. Are there a hundred of us, two hundred, a thousand or maybe 20,000, like in Paris on June 14th ? Who can say ? The more the cortege grows, and the more its boundaries disappear, spilling over into the whole demonstration and merging with the passers by on the pavement. There is no sociology of the cortege de tête, even if one could guess that it includes precarious workers, temps, and the unemployed who are de facto excluded from French trade unionism. The most important thing is not there, there is something that doesn’t lie in the confrontations, something that can affect everyone. If the cortege de tête is a place where black waterproofs become allies with red trad unionists bibs , it is through a certain determination. Experienced activists progressively dissolve amidst the people and the pleb : high school pupils, middle class deserters, briefcase carrying execs… Finally in Nantes, the youth coming from the suburbs and popular neighbourhoods were largely and ostensibly a driving force, which is something remarkable.
The future of this heterogenous force is not without bringing up questions. How could it go beyond its sporadic clustering ? Where and how could the bonds that are woven in the streets unfold beyond a few hours ? Apart from social networks what would the tools and places be to organise such a force ? How can it be called for again ? Is it inexorably dependent on trade union marches that follow it and have given it the popular support that it needs to exist ? Will we have to wait for a social movement for it to erupt again or will it be able to become strong enough to propose things in another context ?
It is possible that the cortege de tête is one of the manifestation of a ungovernable generation. Its form is generic, accessible to all, reproducible and experienced through practice. To that effect it has largely nurtured demonstrations across France, well beyond the places where they turned into riots. Like a symbolic force, a new energy, a political emulation, at once escape and obstinacy, an indocility that takes root, expresses itself and spreads out.
 Nuit Debout : From March 31st, the Place de la République, one of the main squares in Paris, and many others throughout France are occupied daily. Mass assemblies, workshops and many initiatives for struggles are taking place.
 union CGT : major trade union in France, close to the Communist party and notoriously reformist. Yet, it is the only trade union about to kick start and hold real mobilisations at a national level.
 A “reinforced banner”, as well as having a slogan, is sufficiently thick to soften the rubber bullets and police grenades shrapnels. Thanks to its handles, it can be used as shields with cops come into contact.
 Red bibs are the usual attire worn by trade unionists in demos, on pickets, etc.
Ce texte est une contribution de la mauvaise troupe au livre "Smashing a system, building a world. Riots and militant occupations" à paraître aux éditions Rowman & Littlefields (international) en 2018.
For the last year of his mandate, (...)