“They irritate me all these people to make demonstrations”. These words were those of Roland a few years ago. Today, in the Parisian premises of the Alternatiba association, the retiree came to attend a training session on non-violent action. He is not the only one. Around him, seated on the benches of an amphitheater, dozens of participants also come to train for the first time. This meeting comes two days before the blocking of the General Assembly of TotalEnergies in Paris on May 26, 2023. The activists want to stop “EACOP”, the multinational oil pipeline megaproject in Uganda and Tanzania.
Thoughtful, Roland remembers the time when the political system did not worry him: “For me, I did not see the harm. One day, I was going to do some shopping for my restaurant. On the way back, because of the demonstrators of the Republic, I was prevented from returning when I had a professional constraint. It annoyed me a lot.” Today the pensioner confesses: “I understood that these rebellious people were right. They bothered me for my races, but ultimately it did not matter in relation to their cause”.
Facing Roland, the meeting is organized. On the platform, the two trainers finish installing the overhead projector. On the wall, they diffuse images. Among them, the famous photo of Rosa Parks sitting in a bus forbidden to blacks, in Alabama in 1955. The picture, known worldwide, opens the formation to non-violent action.
“A difference between the legal and the legitimate”
For three hours, the dozens of participants reflect together. “What is violence? Why mobilize? What are the possible modes of action?” Then the roles needed to organize nonviolent action are explained. Among them: “force management”, “coordination” or even “militant well-being”.
“It’s important to take convivial times, to create talking circles between us to support each other”, explains Solène, trainer at Alternatiba-Paris. Legal tools are also issued. For example, in the event of an arrest, it is better to remain silent than to lie to the police. “If a person ends up in police custody after an action, thanks to our training, they will know how to react and what their rights are,” she adds. In his eyes, training is also reassuring: “The goal is that people know the risks but also the benefits that actions of civil disobedience generate. We give them the keys so that they decide to commit or No.”
The decision is made for Louise, an engineering school student. She wants to act for the climate, and intends to take part in the action against TotalEnergies. “This action of disobedience will be my first,” she explains.
The student also denounces the existence of porous links between her school and the French oil giant. “My school is financed by TotalEnergies! This is also why I have to act. In my school, groups of students are forming to oppose these links.”
To the right of Louise, a slightly older but equally uplifted EELV municipal councilor. Her group is in the minority at the town hall and she believes that “political action is no longer enough”. This is the first time she has taken part in such a project. For her, “civil disobedience is a stronger way to (s) engage”.
From wait-and-see to civil disobedience
According to Marie, spokesperson for Alternatiba Paris, activism is a remedy for impotence. For her, there are only two possibilities in the face of the scientific reports deemed alarming. “We can be overwhelmed and lose hope, she explains, but this resignation risks leading to passivity. Or we decide to regain power through collective action.”
At 28, this activist has decided to get out of her sofa and testifies to her anguish in the face of climate change. “I felt that something was wrong, she recalls, but I thought that my role was limited to going to vote from time to time or signing petitions. Finally I realized that it was no longer sufficient.”
The activist intends to participate in the blocking of the general assembly of Total Energies. According to Marie, this is the only way to stop the mega oil project. Not only does she want to defuse what she denounces as a “global climate bomb”, but also to defend Ugandans and Tanzanians whose “lives are threatened”. “We, the citizens, we have no lobbies or big means, she says, putting our bodies directly in the line of sight and opposing them to the projects that we are trying to fight is to regain power “.
A divisive approach
A reasoning supported by the philosopher Dominique Bourg. In his eyes, not only is non-violent civil disobedience necessary, but it should not be opposed to the law: “these actions aim to move the law more quickly on questions of protection”. The thinker opposes policies that delegitimize the actions of environmental activists. “In France, we have a government that has tried to portray environmental activists as terrorists, he thunders, it’s total rudeness.”
These strategies of discrediting militant groups, Marie has them well in mind. The spokeswoman for Alternatiba Paris knows that actions of civil disobedience are not always unanimous. “I have the impression that they are constantly questioned, she laments, but what, concretely, drives us to be more shocked by citizen civil disobedience than by these destructive multinationals?” she wonders.
TotalEnergies has become accustomed to seeing its general meetings disrupted by activists, and is preparing accordingly. Last year, a similar blockage prevented neither the vote nor the approval of the climate strategy of the leading French oil group. But the mobilization of environmentalists is not in vain: according to activists, it would have led banks like BNP or Société Générale to withdraw from the EACOP project.
Comedians, entrepreneurs, conductors, roofers or even influencers, they are active in the fight against climate change. For L’Express, students from the Institut Pratique du journalisme Paris Dauphine set out to meet small and large players in climate action in France.