After we crossed the second checkpoint in Marinka, the taxi driver told me the clocks had gone forward. Donetsk time is Moscow time. It isn’t far from the frontline, but Donetsk city centre is calm at the moment. You could almost forget there’s a war going on.
Most countries in the world consider the breakaway republic of Abkhazia still to be part of Georgia. It has been recognised only by Russia (in 2008), Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and – since May 2018 – Syria. According to the Abkhazian authorities, on 8 September, at around 11 p.m., Gennady Gagulia, the 70-year-old de facto prime minister, died in a car accident on the road between Psou, on the Russia border, and the capital, Sukhumi. He was returning from a meeting with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, where they had signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) announced that a 22-year-old man had crashed into Gagulia’s car. He was arrested; drugs were at first said to have been detected in his blood, but the prosecutor has since contradicted those reports.
Sunday, late July: the small suburban towns of Persan and Beaumont-sur-Oise are almost empty. Persan, the last stop on the H line, is half an hour from the Gare du Nord, through a landscape of woodland and fields. It was a beautiful day. A man was fishing by the banks of the Oise; two others were chatting in front of a hairdresser’s salon. The day before, thousands of people from Paris and the banlieues had filled the streets; some had arrived by bus from further afield, among them party leaders from the left-wing NPA and La France Insoumise, anti-racist activists, relatives of people who had been killed by the police, girls wearing T-shirts saying ‘Justice for Adama’ or ‘Justice for Gaye’, and a man with a placard: ‘The State protects Benallas, we want to save Adamas.’ Adama Traoré died two years ago in police custody in Beaumont-sur-Oise. His family and friends had organised the march to demand justice – yet again – after his death. A few days before the protest, Le Monde revealed that a man in a police helmet who had been filmed assaulting May Day protesters in Paris was not a police officer but a close aide of Emmanuel Macron.
On Sunday, 10 June, around midday, women gathered at the Titanic slipways in Belfast, a ‘regenerated’ area of former docks, to take part in the Processions, a march to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage, which was taking place in several cities across the UK. At the front of the procession, women walked quietly. At the back, there were banners, some men and loud chanting. Two weeks after the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, women were demanding abortion rights in Northern Ireland. In the morning I had travelled from Dublin to Belfast on a bus full of women who had canvassed before the referendum.
‘Give us back May 68!’ a group of students shouted in front of the Odéon in Paris. On 7 May, the theatre had scheduled a May 68 commemoration. First there’d be a play, then some intellectuals and artists would talk. ‘We must emphasise the importance of the Odéon,’ the blurb said, ‘which … was the main platform for “everything is possible”. There, on the stage, everywhere in the theatre, a community of young people tried to invent a utopia and to live it. This was a contradictory and experimental space for speaking out.’ The students outside the theatre fifty years later had been protesting against a law that changes the conditions of access to university and introduces academic selection. They demanded to be let into the Odéon to take part in the discussion – to no avail. Inside, an audience mostly composed of smartly dressed white older people listened politely to the speakers. The theatre’s director called the police, who sprayed tear gas and arrested four students.
The date of the Russian presidential election last month was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the day Russia claimed Crimea, 18 March 2014. In the main streets of Sevastopol, loudspeakers blasted old Soviet songs. ‘Russia, better with you,’ the posters said. A young woman who sold me a sim card told me that the city had come up with the idea of giving a medal to people who had voted both in the referendum on joining Russia – which wasn’t recognised by Ukraine or most other countries – and in this election. ‘They say it’s to mobilise our moral spirit, so it will mobilise the moral spirit of pensioners. And because everything in this country is bullshit, they haven’t made enough medals,’ she said. ‘Will you get one?’ I asked. ‘Well, maybe,’ she said. ‘If I vote.’
‘Do you know any of them?’ a man asked me as I was looking at pictures of missing residents of Grenfell Tower on the railings of the Methodist church nearby. I told him I didn't. ‘They're all dead,’ he said. There was a protest on Friday at Kensington Town Hall. The council owns Grenfell Tower, which was managed by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. ‘Don't destroy where we live. We've got people sleeping on lawns. We can't let them destroy where we live,’ a young woman said into a megaphone. ‘You told them to stay inside,’ another woman said. ‘You killed them. Justice will be served to them. We're not dumb. Our eyes are not closed. We know exactly what you've done. Don't let them sell your house. Don't let them kill you.’ A group of people had entered the town hall during the protest and there were reports of an occupation on social media but the crowd outside was calm. No one from the council came to talk to the protesters. ‘We're going back to the scene of the crime. Let's go back orderly. We'll represent Notting Hill,’ a man announced.
On 18 May, Le Parisien reported that parts of the 18th arrondissement, between La Chapelle métro station and the Périphérique, had been ‘abandoned to men only’: Women don't have a place any more. Cafés, bars and restaurants are forbidden to them … Groups of dozens of men, street vendors, dealers, migrants and smugglers, hold the streets, harassing women.
In the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday 23 April, Gwendoline, an 18-year-old from Hénin-Beaumont, a small northern town of 26,000 inhabitants, voted for the first time, for Marine Le Pen. Le Pen cast her own ballot in Hénin-Beaumont too. The Front National mayor, Steeve Briois, was elected in one round of voting in 2014. I met Gwendoline in a windswept railway station parking lot, on 1 May, as we were waiting for a bus to take us to Hénin-Beaumont. Our train had been cancelled. She laughed at how grim her bank holiday Monday had turned out to be – stuck in a car park on her way back from a funeral, with a mock baccalauréat exam to look forward to the next day. When the bus finally arrived, it took us very slowly across former mining lands, around a slag heap, not far from Oignies, where the last French coalmine closed in 1990. Gwendoline said that everyone in her class who was old enough to vote, voted for Le Pen. There wasn’t much to do in town, she said, maybe go to Auchan, the biggest shopping centre north of Paris, in the next town. ‘It's Hénin-Beaumont, it's not marvellous,’ she smiled.
In March 2014, Robert Ménard, one of the founders of Reporters without Borders (he isn’t involved anymore) was elected mayor of Béziers, a small city in the South of France, with the support of the Front National. Ménard is not in the FN but has said he agrees with 80 per cent of what they say.