Going Viral for Good: Meet Mathilde Caillard, the techno activist who danced against the French pension reform

By Alma Fabiani

Published May 12, 2023 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes

Viral moments have become the centrepiece of activism. Gen Zers are currently spearheading some of the most important movements of the 21st century, and we’re doing it with the help of social media. Our mindset? It’s never too early to combat climate change, shed light on the mental health crisis, and fight against racial injustice. Meet the changemakers of our generation who’ve used the algorithm for the greater good.

On Saturday 15 April 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron signed into law his government’s highly unpopular pension reforms, which raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64. Although protests against the new law definitely have continued to carry on despite the bill having been signed by the head of state, it was the street activism that took place across the country just before, in March, that truly had the greatest impact on the rest of the world, and we just couldn’t look away.

Sometimes spontaneous, and other times violent, some protests drew crowds of more than a million people, with the outcry proving to be a major test for President Macron as bins overflowed across the capital and in other big cities. But it was one specific demonstration, along with one protester in particular, that stood out from the months of opposition displayed in France.

The techno activist who broke the internet

When 25-year-old activist Mathilde Caillard got ready to march the streets of Paris on 7 March, arming herself with a pair of sunglasses, red belt, black jeans and an Alternatiba t-shirt on top of an oh-so-French black turtleneck, she had no idea that she would end up going viral.

Known as “MC danse pour le climat” on social media, which translates to “MC dances for the climate,” Caillard was filmed dancing to techno music in front of the march by the climate and social justice collective she belongs to, Alternatiba Paris, followed by a crowd of electrified protesters.

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In no time, the techno activist’s galvanising movements and clear sense of rhythm became a meme for young protesters opposing the pension reform, and the slogan chanted in the clip became a rallying cry that reached individuals even outside of France.

As part of our new column Going Viral for Good, SCREENSHOT sat down with Caillard to learn more about her journey into activism, her go-to methods when it comes to conveying her message, and why it’s so important we have these conversations sooner rather than later.

Did you and your organisation come up with the songs playing in the background while you were dancing?

“Alternatiba Paris, which is the climate and social justice organisation I’ve been a part of since 2019, consists of numerous activists who are constantly coming up with new ways of animating and enlivening demonstrations and groups of people during protests and acts of civil disobedience. Rémi, the DJ who’s mixing on that video, and Éva, another member, had the idea of adding catchy slogans on top of some heavy techno.

Afterwards, we focused on coming up with the songs’ actual messages, which we’re quite used to working on as a small group. We eventually landed on ‘burnt planet’ as we were trying to find a slogan that speaks about our opposition to the pension reform, as well as its link to the current climate crisis.”

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What’s the main message behind those songs for people who can’t speak French?

“It says: ‘no retirees on a burnt planet, pensions and climate are part of the same fight.’ The French youth and the climate movement are opposed to the new pension plan because we reject the system that created this reform in the first place. It’s a system that wants us to work more to produce more, even though we’re all aware that it’s this insane and infinite production cycle that is currently leading us to a chaotic climate and is destroying our future.

Instead, we should be questioning work and putting it back in its proper place: work should only serve as a way to fulfil society’s essential needs. Climate change should help us sort through essential activities and what isn’t essential if not harmful for the planet.

Moreover, this reform aims to restructure how France’s working society is organised, while ignoring its impact on the climate. And yet, we know that in a world that’s burning, the drudgery of work won’t be the same as it is now—even more so for those on the frontline. It makes no sense to force people to work for longer when we know that working conditions are only going to deteriorate further.

This reform is not needed and it’s been monopolising both the political and media agenda for too long. Meanwhile, no one’s talking about climate change and it feels as though the French government has zero desire to do anything about it.”

What first led you to use techno dancing (and music) as a way to protest Macron’s pension reform and help promote a powerful message?

“I’ve always liked to dance during protests—dance has been used in social movements forever. Unions or other organisations also play some music on their trucks with people singing and dancing. As for why techno music in particular, as I said earlier, we at Alternatiba Paris came up with the idea one day and wanted to test it out.”

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How did you end up being at the front of the march that day?

“With Alternatiba Paris, when we organise a protest, there’s always a group of activists who are put in charge of animating the procession with chants and dancing. The day the video was filmed, as usual, there were quite a few of us dancing and singing.

In the clip, you can only see me but behind the camera, there were loads of us dancing and singing to encourage the crowd to do the same along with us. It’s important to note that when you’re protesting, you need to do so for five or six hours. Dancing and moving around gives people strength and motivation to carry on.”

In that moment, did you expect those clips of you dancing to ever go viral?

“No, not at all, because I’ve always done it, just like countless other people.”

Who first posted those clips, and what kind of response have you received on social media since then?

“It was a friend of mine who filmed the video. He initially posted it to his Instagram story and then sent it to me. I shared it on my social media channels a few days after to show people, ‘Look, this is how we protested during the latest demonstration, come join us against the pension reform.’ That’s when it went viral.

Though I was harassed online, mostly by men, the majority of the messages I received were that of support from individuals who told me that the video gave them back hope and made them want to join our protests.”

What has your role at Alternatiba Paris consisted of?

“I’ve been an activist and member of Alternatiba Paris since 2019, but the organisation has been around since 2015, when it was created as Alternatiba’s local group. The movement is based on two things: to bring alternative solutions, and to do so through civil disobedience against harmful projects which puts pressure on both the government and polluters.

For example, in 2020, we went on Roissy Charles De Gaulle’s tarmac to protest against the expansion of the airport’s Terminal 4 in the midst of a climate crisis. A few months later, the expansion was cancelled.”

Why do you think that gen Zers are at the forefront of activism?

“Back when I first started looking into the climate crisis and ways to tackle it, I felt very anxious. I was paralysed and stunned. It’s almost as if I was frozen, I didn’t know what to do. My older sister, who’s 27, was a part of Alternatiba Paris and so I decided to join her. It’s thanks to the collective and the militant action it takes in order to create change that I was able to move past this phase of inertia and manage my eco-anxiety. Together, we have incredible power and can move mountains. I invite all young individuals to join organisations like Alternatiba Paris and shake off this same feeling of apathy. It’s the battle of our century.”

What other forms of activist protest would you like to see go viral?

“It’s never too early nor too late to take action and start caring about politics. To be in politics is simply to have an interest in how we can best organise ourselves as a society, what future we want to build together and how we want to change the world. If you think about it, everything that surrounds us comes from a political decision. Everything is political. In French, there’s a saying that states: ‘Take care of politics or politics will take care of you.’

So yes, it’s never too late and it’s certainly never too early. Let’s keep our heads up, care about the rest of the world, let’s never give up on fighting for what is right and what we care about. We don’t have anything to lose when it comes to taking action, but we’ve got everything to lose if we don’t.

Something else that I’d like to see go viral? I want people to start talking about ways to tackle climate change seriously, and I want the leaders of the world to finally make decisions that are as important as the matter at hand.”

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