Paris There’s nothing short about a day where you are standing in the train station waiting for the Eurostar to Paris at 630 AM and break the door of the loaned 7th floor walkup crash pad at 11 PM, but in between organizers and researchers with Alliance Citoyennes, the Citizens’ Alliance, and I poured over questions and organizing problems almost nonstop. Fueled by espresso and some food, moving between two languages, there was a hunger for talking about the nuts and bolts of community organizing, and we were all excitedly trying to fill it.
The backstory, as it emerged over the day, was fascinating. Four years ago seven, younger men and women had decided that something needed to happen in France and stumbled onto community organizing as the bridge to building a path to get there. One of them was from Grenoble, which I only know from its connection with the Winter Olympics years ago, but is a medium-sized city of 350,000 or so with some diversity. The city was small enough that the team felt that they could get their arms around their “experiments,” which is to say their efforts to build an organization from scratch, but in the way of these things, as much as anything one of the team was from there, wanted to go back, and the others were game. They spent months getting their feet on the ground and trying to put some resources together, but with luck and skill managed to be ready to roll in 2011. They read what they could about community organizing in French, which was mainly the Alinsky classics, ruing how much didn’t exist at all and only in English, and one of their team boomed out to England for some months to try and get some time on the ground with some organizing projects there, tightened down the seat belt, grabbed the wheel and started talking to organizations and individuals about coming on board.
Their first assembly pulled together almost 200 people and decided on five campaigns, constructing committees and working groups to start moving forward. At one level there were no surprises with housing, schools, and the like on the menu. Looking at that hat campaign more closely though shows their spirit and ingenuity. Schools ended up being a way in which they were activating their migrant membership from the Congo and Francophone Africa to get rights and services at the local university as students. One critical action had 30 of them taking advantage of a big school welcome concert and hijacking the space that would have entered the banquet room and with great chutzpah and props galore, making people register to get into the hall in the same time consuming, ridiculous way that migrant students were having to do in order to access classes and services. Needless to say they won quick negotiations, extended hours and staffing at the foreign students service office, and a new head set there. What interested me as well was the clarity of what they had heard from their members and affiliated organizations and willingness to aggressively take the fight to what for most community organizers is unfamiliar and alien turf on a school campus. An organization and organizing team with that kind of spark and imagination is going to get somewhere.
Two things seemed to have happen though as they furiously organized. One is that other areas in France heard the buzz and wanted to build something like it or with them, and they were strained to support those efforts or sustain them in a systematic way, as they still tried to hammer out their own Grenoble “model” of sorts. The other was that they hit the wall and ran out of money, grinding almost to a halt and having to reorganize on unemployment and social benefits in 2013 to try and learn the lessons of their success and failures to move forward next. All of which added up to one of those amazing and unstoppable multi-national exchanges of “been there, done that” and how we – and they – got through and managed to take the next steps up the mountain and how far we might get.
Another day of such conversations looms forward for Sunday, but the organization and organizers that have survived this four year process with Alliance Citoyennes are my betting favor for being able to build something very, very special and very, very powerful in France in the coming years.