After a hard day of work, when some people can’t wait to be home, some others can’t help daubing. In this freezing evening of September, Alex, Raphael and some 80 other protesters known as the “déboulonneurs”, roughly translated as “dismantlers”, gather in front of the metro station Malesherbes in this very hype and quiet Parisian area.
Since 2005, they have been regularly protesting against what they call “invasive” advertising. They call for a nationwide debate on the place of advertising in public space, and they ask, in pratical terms, for the law on advertisement to be reformed and the billboards not to exceed the size of 50x70 cm (19.7in x 27.6in).
To interpellate the population and the French media, they “daub” with paint messages such as “Ads pollute your dreams” on these billboards. “We have no other solution but to daub these ads to make people react, to get media coverage and to question society of consumption” explains one of the organisers in his megaphone, “we are not against advertisement but rather against the way it is made and imposed to us all day long”.
Their targets for this day are 6 big billboards along the avenue de Villiers. After a few explanations and instructions for the protest, the mob heads towards the target driven by the sound of accordion and old French songs. A nicely dressed old lady, a young middle-aged biker, nonchalant students, a smiling university professor, and some curious passers-by compose this crowd, ranging from 25 to 60 and from any social background.
Under the watchful eye of 20 or so policemen, whom they didn’t forget to inform of their action as it is part of the process, three daubers start slapping paint on the billboards. “Legitimate answer” is one of their mottoes that appear on the ad. Without any hostility, the policemen come to the daubers, seize them by the arm and lead them to their patrol wagon. Before their action, they already accepted to be arrested and to take on the consequences. “We are not afraid to go into custody, it is part of the “civil disobedience” to assume it and make it public. We think of this as a legitimate act” claims one of them.
The mob supports them with great applause and singing a modified version of “the Deserter” an old French anti-establishment song written by famous novelist Boris Vian, adapted to the action of the day:
“I’m tired of seeing - this advertising carnage, - a totalitarian stage - every morning and evening.
What makes me a hostage - is all this brainwash campaign, - image after image, - it makes me want to pay.
In the name of beauty - and against touting, - let’s go daubing - for our own liberty!”
Marina, a young woman in her thirties, attracted by such a hubbub, observes the scene and comments: “TV, internet, billboards, we are overwhelmed with ads and consumption is everywhere (…) but I think their action remains quite useless, there will always be ads. Besides it looks a bit dirty!”
The French population is traditionally very keen to support such attempts but usually denigrates the methods that are used. “People don’t really get it, they think it is insignificant and that we actually can choose to look at an ad or not. But in the end, we all know ads by heart; it has become part of our cultural and symbolic references at the expense of other information and other knowledge. We are not free to receive all these commercial information” says Antoine, a philosophy student of 26, who actively participated in a previous action of the “deboulonneurs”. “What we do is only symbolic and harmless, we don’t want to vandalize any public space but if a single daub can raise a debate and a reflection, it is not that useless”, he adds.
This collective considers its actions as a legitimate “civil disobedience”, not vandalism. This concept, even if coined by American philosopher Henri David Thoreau in 1849 has been frenchified over the last decades. The “deboulonneurs” even quote Gandhi to illustrate their motives: "civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen to be civil.”