French Protesters Say Non to the New Year

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Michel Cathelineau

Fonacon members destroy a grandfather clock in order to halt time and prevent 2009 from arriving

In addition to their more admirable accomplishments, the French are generally considered the world champions of public protesting. Whether it's transport workers striking against tightened pension regimes, fishermen outraged by high operating costs, students battling education reform or even lawyers picketing over court closures, it seems scarcely a week goes by without some section of France's population taking to the streets. Given that, it should come as little surprise that one boisterous French group is planning a protest rally on the evening of Dec. 31 — and demanding that the world refuse to shed 2008 to make way for a troublesome-looking New Year.

"We're saying no to the tyranny of time, no to the merciless onslaught of the calendar, and yes to staying put in 2008," says a man who identifies himself as Marie-Gabriel, a militant member of the Fonacon group, which is organizing its fourth annual anti–New Year protest under the slogan "2009 Stays In Its Shell." "Last year we warned a mocking world that 2008 would be horrible compared to 2007, and we were right. This time everyone acknowledges 2009 will be terrible, so now is the moment to unite together and refuse this new, rotten year!" (Read TIME's top 10 oddball news stories of 2008.)

As seriously bleak as 2009 is expected to be, a call to mount barricades and bar the New Year's arrival sounds like a gag even in strike-happy France. That's because Fonacon's protest is decidedly tongue in cheek — though don't expect Marie-Gabriel to admit it. In videos on the group's website,, he dons the signature black balaclava of guerrilla commandos as he calls sympathizers into action.

"We're making a mockery of two particularly French traits: a penchant for protesting whatever navel special-interest groups happen to be gazing into, and the glorification of the chic, well-heeled soirée as an art form," says Marie-Gabriel, who in 2005 co-founded the Opposition Front to the New Year: National Organization Committee, devising the group's name exclusively so that its French acronym, Fonacon, would be homonymous with the phrase "telephone an a__hole." (Its year-end protest slogans are equally risible, including last year's motto, "It Was Better Right Now.") Fonacon and its futile protest are rooted in a bedrock of self-deprecation, echoing France's tradition of iconoclastic comics getting the French to laugh at their more ridiculous characteristics. Notable among those comedians are the late antiestablishment humorist Coluche, the writers of the nightly satirical newscast Les Guignols de l'Info, Jules-Edouard Moustic — host of the black parody news show Groland Magzine — and the creators of the smash 1998 film Le Dîner de Cons ("The Dinner Game"), which depicts rich sophisticates falling afoul of their own cruel game of inviting low-brow rubes to swank dinners where they're ridiculed for entertainment. (See pictures of a French photographer's satirical work.)

Marie-Gabriel says he saw similar potential in mocking the sparkling, de rigueur New Year's Eve festivities that many French admit to hating. "It started with me and another guy realizing most New Year's Eves in France are just really boring evenings people are forced into with others they neither know nor like," he recalls. "So we started holding anti–New Year protest parties for people wanting an alternative — and an excuse to demonstrate! Sure, 98% of France thinks we're losers, but the 2% who get it make it worthwhile."

Fonacon's initial effort in 2005 drew 300 people to a small village in the coastal Vendée region, using what has become the group's winning formula: free oysters and drinks for all comers who preregister, and an evening of tearing up agendas, smashing clocks and otherwise attacking symbols of time. Another appeal to restless New Year's Eve souls in 2006 brought more than 1,000 to Nantes. Last year Fonacon attracted more than 10,000 people with its party-cum-protest in Paris. This year Marie-Gabriel jokingly boasts that he expects "between five and 50,000 people, give or take a few," but then confides that Fonacon's rendezvous point on the Vendéen island le Noirmoutier — chosen because it's a good place to attempt to halt the incoming tide, and thereby stop the earth's rotation, and with it time — will probably draw far fewer revelers. (See pictures of France celebrating Bastille Day.)

"It's going to be so remote, cold and windy that we expect around a thousand or so of the most hard-core enthusiasts," he says. "But we're claiming this is the only spot from France where the Statue of Liberty is visible at low tide — meaning all eyes in Barack Obama's America will be turned on our protest to deny the New Year. Yes we can!" (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.)

Or can't — as Marie-Gabriel himself hastens to admit. Indeed, anticipating that Fonacon's efforts will yet again fail to prevent the New Year from arriving, Marie-Gabriel and his peers already have plans for Dec. 31, 2009. "We're going to stop messing around and take the fight against 2010 directly to the top," he pledges. "Everyone meet us at United Nations headquarters in New York City."

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