Black Bloc: Who are the black-clad figures who hog the headlines at French protests?

They feature in some of the most dramatic images from French demos - smashing windows, torching bins and confronting police. But who are the 'Black Bloc'?

Black Bloc: Who are the black-clad figures who hog the headlines at French protests?
A clack-clad youth kicks a bin into a fire during a demonstration in Paris. Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

It’s a regular pattern in French demonstrations or manifestations – thousands or even tens of thousands of protesters turn out to peacefully register their opposition to something, and then as the demo ends figures dressed all in black emerge and begin causing havoc.

They frequently smash shop windows or bus shelters, set fire to bins, street furniture or piles or trash and often clash with police. As such, their activities create the most dramatic images of the demo, which end up being used by the media.

Most people agree that the black-clad figures are not simply demonstrators – they turn up prepared; their faces covered, toting gas masks or goggles to protect against the inevitable police tear gas and often with tools or home-made incendiaries.

Some see them as radical Leftists, anti-capitalists or Marxists, others as hooligans solely out to wreak havoc, destroy property and engage in violent confrontations with police.

Although not originally a French movement, in recent years they have became more notorious in France, particularly for destruction caused along the Champs-Elysées, the high-end fashion and shopping boulevard, during the ‘yellow vest’ protests of 2018/19.

Some protest leaders and unions have expressed regret that Black Blocs infiltrate their protests, focusing the media attention on violent elements rather than the protest topic at hand.

The history of Black Bloc

It was West Berlin police in the 1980s who gave them their name – the English term is a translation of the German “Schwarzer Block” – in reference to their protest tactics.

At the time, activists involved in the non-hierarchical Autonomist movement protesting against squatter evictions began to use the method during protests – essentially moving to the front of the march as a ‘compact black block’ to preserve anonymity, protect one another, and sometimes to confront police or begin property destruction.

In April 2000, Black Bloc made headlines outside of Germany, when a group called the “Radical Anti-Capitalist Blocs” (RACB) joined in rallies against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC. 

Many researchers on the topic point to 2009 as the first time Black Bloc made their appearance in France. In Strasbourg, thousands of protesters gathered to demonstrate against NATO during the April 2009 summit.

Among the 10,000 to 30,000 people present were approximately 2,000 Black Bloc protesters who vandalised much of the Port du Rhin district, causing damages estimated at €100 million.

In the years following, Black Bloc reappeared during protests against the 2019 pension reforms, as well as during the ‘yellow vest’ movement.

READ MORE: Whatever happened to the ‘yellow vests’ in France?

Modern Black Bloc are defined as “a procession of revolutionary militants dressed in black who are likely to resort to direct action”, explained Francis Dupuis-Deri, a political scientist, to French daily Les Echos.

Who are they?

Another political scientist, Myriam Benraad, told Les Echos that in the 1980s, Black Bloc members “were fairly educated People” and often intellectuals.

In more recent years, many people in France have typecast them as “teacher’s sons” – essentially middle-class young people who engage in far-left politics and violent protest for a short time, before themselves joining the professional classes.

It is difficult to have a complete picture of who joins Black Bloc, due to the anonymous nature of the movement, but it seems that the demographic is more mixed than this image, although it is generally a young movement and news photos suggest that members are mostly white. 

According to Benraad: “Today in France, it is more so the radical left, but it is difficult to determine how they got there (…) globally, Black Blocs are attached to radical revolutionary political movements – like anarchists, Marxist-Leninists, radical environmentalists, feminists and autonomists”.

Political commentator and columnist for The Local, John Lichfield, wrote in UnHerd that “many are students (which in France can cover ages 18 to 25). Some live in squats and live on casual work. Others have well-paid jobs”. 

In an interview with TV5 Monde, one activist said that in terms of gender demographics, about 20 to 40 percent of members were women – in 2020 The Local spoke to one Black Bloc member who was a 35-year-old Parisienne who joined the movement after losing her job as a server during the pandemic.

What do they stand for?

Although they do not belong to one particular political party or union, Black Bloc tends to support a far-left, anti-capitalist message, which is typically seen in the graffiti sprayed during protests.

Destruction tends to be concentrated on symbols of capitalism and globalisation – like banks and multinational companies or restaurants, like McDonalds or real estate agents (which are targeted for ‘gentrifying’ neighbourhoods).

However, it is not uncommon for cars parked along protest paths to end up burned, in addition to police vehicles, while Black Bloc have also torched news kiosks in Paris, which are operated by self-employed traders earning close to minimum wage.

In a 2020 interview with The Local, one Black Bloc militant – a 35-year-old Parisian woman who had previously worked in the service industry – said: “To me, protests are just walking in the street. There is no point in that. Not now. Protesting worked when we had presidents who listened to the people, but this government doesn’t care.”

READ MORE: INTERVIEW: A French Black Bloc rioter explains reasons for protest violence

She said that after losing her job she felt that: “There is something within that needs to get out. I told myself that I need to get all that hatred out of my body, otherwise I would implode.

“Either we keep all that inside, get ill and end up on antidepressants, or we dress up in black and explode on the streets.”

One thing that the Black Bloc are is violently anti-police – they frequently engage in running battles with riot police, who respond with tear gas, water canon, rubber bullets and flash grenades.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why do French police love to use tear gas so much?

Although they have sometimes attacked journalists covering demos, especially representatives of right-wing media, they are very rarely violent towards members of the public and, perhaps paradoxically, present little threat to passers-by.

How many of them are there?

According to French intelligence sources in 2020, there were an estimated 800 “pure members” of Black Bloc, but in 2018 at least 1,000 participated in a protest on May Day. 

As the group communicates using secure channels, like Signal, where their identities can be protected, and one tactic involves dispersing and running off in different directions after causing destruction – making it difficult for police to make arrests or identifications – the group’s true numbers are not clear.

Find out more about the black bloc protesters in our Talking France podcast

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‘Ch’tis’ to ‘Parigots’: What are the locals called in different parts of France?

France is a nation of great variety with culture, geography and identities shifting drastically from region to region. Read our guide to the names used to describe people coming from the different regions of Metropolitan France.

'Ch'tis' to 'Parigots': What are the locals called in different parts of France?

There are many official and unofficial names by which you can name people according to which part of France they are from. 

City-dwellers in places like Paris may sometimes condescendingly refer to people elsewhere in the country as a blédard (which roughly translates as ‘hillbilly’) or de province (someone from the provinces), but in reality, there are far better descriptors than that. 

Here is our regional breakdown of names you can give to people, depending on where they are from.


You can describe people from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region as Auvergnats, Rhônalpins or Aurhalpins. 

People who live in Lyon, the biggest city in the region are officially referred to as Lyonnais, but people from there are also known as gones (mostly for boys, young men and football fanatics) and fenottes (for young women and girls). These nicknames come from the region’s franco-provençal language, which is otherwise more or less forgotten. 

People from the département of Savoie, which also sits in the region are known as savoyards

READ MORE: QUIZ: How many French cities can you identify by their nicknames?


People from the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of France are known as Bourguignons and Francs-Comtois

Inhabitants of the city of Dijon, the largest in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, are known as Dijonnais


People from Bretagne (Brittany) are known as Bretons

Official denominations for people living in major towns in Brittany are as follows: brestois (Brest), lorientais (Lorient), nantais (Nantes), rennais (Rennes), malouin (Saint-Malo). 

But Brittany has an exceptionally large array of strange nicknames for residents of smaller towns and villages – some of which derive from local languages. 

People from Malestroit for example are known as les sabots (the clogs); people from Béganne are known as les fesses naï (the witches); residents of Rochefort-en-Terre are known as les coucous (the cuckoos); and those unlucky enough to live in Roc-Saint-André are known as les chats-de-boué (the muddy cats).

Centre-Val de Loire 

Residents of the Centre-Val de Loire region are officially known as Centro-ligériens. Informally, they sometimes mockingly referred to as les dormeurs du Val  (‘the sleepers of the valley’) – suggesting that they live in somewhat of a backwater. 

Residents of the major cities in the region are known as follows: orléanais (Orleans), chartrains (Chartres) and tourangeaux (Tours). 


Residents of Corsica are referred to as Corses

The people of Corsica use the word pinzutu to describe residents of mainland France. Pinzutu means ‘pointed’ in the Corse language and is a reference to the pointed tricorne hats worn by French soldiers who invaded the island in the 18th Century. 

Grand Est 

People from the Grand Est region of France are known by different words depending on where exactly in the region they are from. Les alsaciens come from Alsace, les champenois or les champardennais come from Champagne, les ardennais come from the Ardennes, and les lorrains come from Lorraine. 

The region has some fun nicknames for residents of smaller villages, such as les nawelspàalter (‘the fog cleavers’) those living in Griesbach-au-Val and les escargots for those living in Michelbach-le-Bas. 

The largest city in the Grand Est region is Strasbourg, where residents are officially known as strasbourgeois


The Hauts-de-France region is located in the north of the country and while there is no official label to describe people from this area, many use the unofficial tag, les ch’tis. Those living in what used to be known as the region of Picardy (which fused with Nord-Pas-de-Calais in 1972 to create the Hauts-de-France region) are known as picards

Villages in this part of France has a strong tradition of using insulting labels to describe the residents of neighbouring villages. To name just a few: ches péteux d’Arleux (the farters of Arleux); les fiers culs d’Bersée (the proud arses of Bersée); les pourchots d’Orchies (‘the pigs of Orchies’); les léqueux d’plats (‘the plate lickers of Pas en Artois’). 


Residents of the Île-de-France region are known as franciliens

At the heart of this region is Paris, where residents are known officially as parisiens and informally as parigots

Some people from elsewhere in the country will insultingly refer to Parisians as têtes de veau (‘veal heads’) because it rhymes with parigot. Others will use the insult têtes de chien (‘dog heads’) because it rhymes with parisien

A rarer nickname for Parisians is panamistes which comes from the word Paname – a slang term for Paris. 


Residents of Normandy are known as normands while residents of its largest city, Rouen, are known as rouennais.

People from the Calvados département are known as calvadosiens; people from the Seine-Maritime département as seinomarins; people from the Manche département as manchois or manchots; people from the Eure département as eurois; and people from the Orne département as ornais

READ MORE: Snobs, beaches and drunks – 5 things this joke map teaches us about France


Nouvelle-Aquitaine is the largest region of France and its residents are officially known as néo-aquitains

Its largest city is Bordeaux, where residents are officially known as bordelais. But sometimes, the bordelais are insultingly known as doryphores in reference to a kind of beetle that arrived to Europe from the United States and ravaged potato crops in the 19th and 20th Century. Sometimes, people in Paris and Marseille are also called doryphores

In the countryside of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, people often use the term doryphores to describe wealthy city-dwellers who buy up property and disturb the balance of the countryside. 


Residents of the Occitane region are sometimes referred to as occitans, but this is not an official label. 

Major cities include Toulouse where residents are known as toulousains and Montpelier where residents are known as montpelliérains

In the Occitan language, there are loads of smaller villages where residents are mockingly referred to with silly names. In the Hérault département alone for example, there are: the capbours (‘stupid heads’ – used to talk about residents of Saint Vincent de Barbayragues); sauta rigolas (‘the funny jumpers’ – residents of Mauguio); lous bentotis (‘braggarts’ – residents of Saint Paul et Valmalle); and manja favas (‘the bean eaters’ – residents of Fontes). 

Pays de la Loire 

Residents of the Pays de la Loire region are sometimes called ligériens – especially those living in the département of La Loire. Sometimes people also use the term loirains. 

Its biggest city is Nantes, where residents are referred to as nantais

People from the Maine-et-Loire département are sometimes called angevins; residents of the Mayenne département are known as mayennais; those from Sarthe are known as sarthois; while those from Vendée are known as vendéen

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

People from the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region are known as provençaux – a term not to be confused with de province, which is used to talk about people from anywhere in provincial France. 

It’s major city is Marseille, where residents are known as marseillais

Do you know any other nicknames for locals in France? Let us know in the comments below.