Authors: Martin Bagnol & David Bola
Photo Credit: Sarah Leveaux
Ahead of the protest taking place in Place Bellecour in Lyon (this Saturday 26th of March at 2pm), we met with two young activists from Youth for Climate to discuss the movement’s strategy and their political response to current environmental issues.
Could you introduce Youth for Climate and its branch based in Lyon?
Youth for Climate is the French branch of Fridays for Future, the global movement that was launched in 2019 following the initiative of Greta Thunberg. We started with demonstrations, then we diversified with different tactics.
We use civil disobedience as well as chalk action and degradations. For example, we tore down huge advertising billboards at Place Bellecour in Lyon. We have a principle which is the diversity of tactics.
It’s the idea that we’re faced with an emergency so important, that all actions, including those outside the legal framework can be legitimate, and we allow ourselves to use them as long as they don’t involve any violence against a physical person. We don’t consider that it’s really violence as long as no one is physically or morally endangered by what we do.
Are there any other activist tools you use?
We also use sabotage and disabling. For example, we carried out an action on March 5th against Bayer-Monsanto with Extinction Rebellion (XR), “Les Soulèvements de la Terre” and “les Faucheurs Volontaires”. The idea was to enter Bayer-Monsanto’s production site in Villefranche-sur-Saône to disarm the site, to destroy the means of production, so that they are no longer functional.
Have your tactics evolved over time? Do you notice a difference with the early days of the Youth For Climate movement?
We started with protests, and as the world changed, we also evolved in our way of thinking and acting. We saw that the demonstrations weren’t paying off. We weren’t being heard more when they gathered 15,000 people in the streets than a thousand. So we tried to see if civil disobedience worked.
We really established the diversity of tactics at the Assises de Grenoble, the national meeting of the movement that we held in November 2019. We signed the Grenoble Charter, which sets out all of our values at the national level.
It really depends on each local branch, however we’ve seen that protests don’t really work. It rallies people, but it’s a shame if 15,000 people show up and then nothing changes. Overall, Youth For Climate is increasingly moving towards hard-hitting actions. Some activists even go further and leave the movement to join Zones to Defend (editor’s note: Zone à Défendre – ZAD) and more radical groups.
How do local direct actions address global issues?
If everyone started sabotaging, boycotting certain companies, we could achieve something huge. We don’t have time to wait for other things to work. We have to try everything we can get our hands on.
It’s also a question of visibility. When we do a shock action – for example destroying a big advertising billboard –, it’s visible. It has a direct impact, because the advertisement for the SUV is no longer there, and it allows us to get the word out much more than any other action we could have done. It has a certain effectiveness.
We cannot afford to slowly convince people to change the system. We have to be more offensive, because we don’t have the time. There are people who are dying now.
How do you measure the efficiency of an action? How do you know when it’s a success?
First of all, in its media coverage. The marches are often very little reported in the press. We have very few requests for interviews or coverage from the press, we have to go and get them. Civil disobedience actions are better covered because more people get outraged in the media.
Beyond that, sabotage actions have a concrete impact on the things we block. Typically the action we did at Bayer-Monsanto last week. Although not everything went according to plan, meaning we were not able to disarm the site, the simple fact of having activists enter the site forced them to stop production as it is classified as a Seveso* site (editor’s note: industrial sites bearing major accident risks) ).
There was an impact. We temporarily blocked the production of biocides. This is already a small victory because it means that fewer nasty substances have been produced.
An action like this one requires coordination, preparation and training. When there is a risk of being arrested by the police, do you have internal training sessions beforehand?
The way we prepare an action depends on the risks involved. A very consensual and legal action will be prepared in an open way, by having meetings with everyone. We can talk about it on our Discord server, even with people who haven’t been in the movement for a long time.
When we prepare a civil disobedience action, we set a more secure framework with a smaller group of people. The location of the action is not disclosed in advance, and the activists are notified at the last minute. It is on the one hand to protect the organisers, because they run greater legal risks than the simple participants, but also to avoid the presence of the police before the action starts. The “RT” (Territorial Intelligence Agency) are constantly trying to spot where the actions are going to take place.
The movement is made up of fairly young people. Where did you learn these techniques and precautions? Are there more experienced people advising you?
It’s a general evolution. There are people who come from other movements. We are getting inspiration from Extinction Rebellion, but we also had our own methods. You learn by making mistakes. That’s how we evolve.
There is a legal team that looks into the legal risks we face. We are in contact with the “Caisse de Solidarité”, an association whose role is to provide legal support for activists. It helps us to find lawyers if necessary, to prepare our defence, to prepare what we call “the legal back-up” during an action. These are people who are ready to help us by sending lawyers in case of problems.
We also organise training before the actions. Everyone is briefed on the tactics to adopt, and on the risks they face if they end up in police custody or if they are convicted.
Do these training times make it easier to deal with the police during actions?
It depends on the action. When we do a fairly consensual action, it generally goes well. Sometimes even the cops wonder why they are arresting us. But when we are faced with cops who are quite tense, who are often quite borderline in what they do, the fact that we are trained protects us. Knowing our rights is very important, but it doesn’t always make the relationship with them any easier.
Before the pandemic, climate protests were gaining a lot of traction. And then lockdowns happened. What can be done to revive the dynamics after this loss of momentum? How can we get back media interest on climate issues?
Even before Covid, the media interest was low. Only a tiny percentage of the French media space is devoted to ecology, which is terrible. To get the momentum going again, we want this protest on March 26th to be a springboard. We want to re-mobilise people. It’s an issue that is extremely important to us.
It’s an extremely complicated question. If we had the answer, we would be in the media spotlight and we would have already won. This is the big question that is driving us a lot at the moment. “How do we manage to recreate a dynamic that we have lost since the pandemic?” We don’t necessarily have a miracle solution, but we’re trying out the ideas that come to mind.
In 2018-2019, during the first protests, there were 15,000 people in the streets of Lyon. Now, there are 6,000 people like at the last “Look Up” protest (editor’s note: On the 12th of March 2022). We see that there is a lack of interest in the climate issue. It’s unfortunate because now is the time, now is the time to act and put pressure on politicians.
The “Look Up” protest comes from a cultural symbol (the film “Don’t Look Up”) that managed to rally people. Do you need strong cultural symbols to get a lot of people on board quickly? Do you feel that people join you after having been in contact with a cultural object that has made them aware of the climate crisis?
In France, we feel the effects of the climate crisis with the heat waves, but we are not directly affected. We don’t have the issue of scarcity of drinking water, etc. So everything is good to take, including the films that raise awareness on the crisis.
Cultural objects could have a major importance by proposing a new narrative, an alternative to the existing model. We are told that the world is going to become all technological, industrial, and in constant economic growth. How can we propose, through the arts and culture, an alternative narrative to the capitalist model that we don’t want?
Do you think there is a need for a change in what is socially valued, or on the contrary, rejected? For example, holidays in Dubai…
If it was socially uncool, it would mean that there had already been a change in mentalities. And that’s what we’re aiming for: to change mentalities.
Social pressure can be quite effective. The flygskam (editor’s note: Swedish term expressing the shame induced by flying, due to ecological ramifications) in Sweden has reduced the number of people who fly. But our vision of the fight is much more systemic. It’s not just individual actions that will bring meaningful change. The case of the flight to Dubai for holidays only applies to a tiny minority, and this minority must be stopped.
However, we are careful not to blame people who sometimes have no other choice than to go to supermarkets and buy polluting products. We don’t want to put the blame on people who need to pollute to live in the current system. This is a point on which we have to be careful, not to be moralising with those who do not have a choice.
Are you in contact with activists abroad? Do you draw inspiration from them?
We are generally in good contact with global networks on the different actions, and especially with European ones. For example, there were Swiss activists during the action against Bayer-Monsanto. And as members of Fridays For Future, we are in contact with activists from all over the world. By the way, the dates of the 25th and 26th of March are worldwide, all the Youth For Climate & Fridays For Future from different countries will participate at the same time.
As we are trying to diversify our tactics, all ideas are good to take. We look at what others are doing, how they are doing it and if it works.
The latest IPCC report mentions the word degrowth for the first time. Is this a term that you use? How do you decide internally on the YFC programme and the terms you use?
The members of the movement met in Grenoble to write the Grenoble Charter. There were more than a hundred people from all over France who debated for a week on the terms to adopt. Every word was studied.
Certain subjects that do not have a consensus within the movement are debated within Youth For Climate France, at the national level. We can also debate at the local level, because local groups are quite independent. Each of them can have a different vision of the problem.
The actions are really organised by the local branches. Youth For Climate France only gives general guidelines. It’s not a decision-making body at all. It is a gathering of all the local groups that agree on common values, but remain independent. Though, the national level can help the branches that are struggling, by giving them techniques for example.
Local groups have very different territorial issues, Zones to Defend, and capacities. Are there any issues that are specific to Lyon?
Yes, there is Béton Lyonnais, for example, a disastrous company in both social and ecological terms, because their concrete production activities pollute a water pumping area. On top of that, they have major issues with the local communities. We’ve been fighting against this company for years together with other organisations.
We are also mobilised against a huge Amazon warehouse project close to Lyon–Saint-Exupéry Airport. They plan to fly in Amazon products even faster throughout France, and even deliver them to Germany. This action is on hold because there’s an administrative appeal that has been filed by several associations.
If it is banned, so much the better. We will remain vigilant to ensure that Amazon does not submit another project. And if the project is accepted, we will fight to block its construction.
The first round of the French presidential election is on April 12th. The environmental topic is virtually absent from the debates. How do you explain this lack of political interest on this subject?
It bothers a lot of politicians to talk about this because it challenges the existing system. Whether there is a war in Ukraine or not, the subject would not be discussed any further, I think.
The climate issue, as well as the social justice issue, are very absent. Apart from talking about immigration and security, politicians don’t address important issues in these debates. The climate issue was already very low before the crisis in Ukraine, it is even lower now.
The climate issue is still sometimes discussed in the media… but how can we challenge false or inefficient solutions proposed?
You have to listen to the scientists, that’s what’s missing a lot. That’s the whole problem. The latest IPCC report got no media coverage, it’s terrible.
Politicians don’t talk about the important things at all. When you listen to them talk, it’s only communication. They should be confronted with scientists who are able to correct them, rather than journalists who cannot be experts on everything.
Beyond that, the problem is deeper. The electoral system is a communication contest. The person who is elected is not necessarily the one with the best programme, but the one who does the best communication. And even if someone adequate were to come to power, there are so many lobbies and institutional or political barriers that the system is completely blocked. We don’t see elections as the way to get meaningful change..
In general, the system of an election, where we elect someone who will decide everything for 5 years, is something we don’t defend. We want a participatory democracy. We supported the Citizens Convention for Climate (editor’s note: The Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat was an initiative launched by the french government where 150 randomly drawn citizens worked with scientists providing them with data, in order to propose environnemental policies for the government to implement. French president Emmanuel Macron had promised to keep all the measures but ended up keeping just a handful, which he modded before implementation.), which was an amazing thing in principle but was eventually ruined by Emmanuel Macron.
We often hear that “if we let people decide, they won’t want ecology, because people want to be able to continue living as they do now and don’t care about ecology”. We have seen that with the Citizens Convention for Climate that 150 randomly drawn citizens, when supported by scientists who know the issues and given time to debate and reflect, come up with proposals that are 10 times more ambitious than anything that politicians have produced in decades.
We are already facing the consequences of climate change. Disruptions and extreme weather events are occurring more and more often, and in different parts of the world. What is needed to make the climate crisis a priority concern for the majority of the population?
Change doesn’t come from the majority, it always comes from the minority. Everything is good to take. Though, the notion of a spark, is rather vague. At the level of a population, it’s not relevant to talk about a spark, a moment when everyone would realise. There are people who are aware but who don’t act. Typically, politicians. They are informed by scientists who tell them what is going on. Do they think that the environmental crisis is not that serious? Or maybe they think that their solutions are the best…
Even when people become aware of the problem, they can still find appeal in green growth rhetoric, which explains that we can carry on as before by adding green technologies here and there. The discourses calling for a more profound change to our current model are made less audible.
Youth For Climate also fights for social justice. Where do social justice and environnemental activism meet?
When we see that 63 French billionaires emit as much CO2 as 50% of the French population, we understand that climate issues and inequality issues are intrinsically linked and that they must be fought together. We don’t want a bourgeois ecology that maintains these inequalities, or even accentuates them by hitting the most precarious in order to solve the problem created by the richest.
The problem is global. How do we neutralise this gigantic capacity to pollute that the richest have? It is often said that we are in the same boat, but in this boat some are in first class and others are in steerage. They are less responsible, but when the boat sinks, they won’t have access to lifeboats.
At Youth for Climate, we are completely horizontal. We have no leaders, no bosses, no people in charge, no spokespeople, nothing. We want this model for the whole society. There will be no climate justice without social justice. And vice versa.
About the Author
Martin Bagnol is We are Europe Media‘s intern. He co-founded the Soundsystems Radio, a webradio broadcasting from France and England.
David Bola is We are Europe Media‘s content editor. Formerly working at Radio Nova as a freelance journalist and hosts a monthly residency on Piñata Radio, with Ludotek, a show focused on video game music.