France

I watched the Gilets Jaunes rampage across Paris – they are not going away

BY James Bickerton   /  15 February 2019

You know something has gone wrong when a French riot spontaneously stops. Early last Saturday afternoon I was outside the National Assembly building in Paris watching Gilets Jaunes, or yellow vest, protestors attempt to break in. They began tearing wooden chunks from temporary construction panelling, and lobbing them into the compound. Riot police took exception and moved in with tear gas and flashbangs. After retreating, tear gas stinging my eyes and throat, I noticed a man slumped against an exterior wall. The violence subsided as an anxious crowd, including volunteer medical personnel, gathered around him. I later learnt he’d had four fingers blown off after picking up a police flashbang.

The Gilets Jaunes movement has proven remarkably resilient. What started as a protest against planned eco-tax increases on diesel and petrol, with its heart in rural and small-town France, spiralled into something far broader. It is more accurate to think of the Gilets Jaunes as a loose and sometimes incoherent coalition than a cohesive unit. Trying to define what it is for would probably cause the alliance to collapse.

It is far clearer who the Gilets Jaunes are against. They rage against France’s economic and political establishment. The focus of vitriol varies by faction, but approved targets include the rich, major banks and supranational bodies like the EU. Above all, the Gilets Jaunes despise President Emmanuel Macron, who is seen as the personification of an entitled metropolitan elite, and his centrist En Marche party.

Last Saturday saw Acte 13, the thirteenth Saturday of protest since the Gilets Jaunes launched their first national protest on November 17 last year. Several demonstrators listed which of the 13 actions they had participated in on the back of their yellow tabards, as though outlining battle honours. The Gilets Jaunes had a distinctly insurrectionary quality to them, making the comparison feel apt. I spotted Jerome Rodrigues, a key yellow vest activist, in the crowd sporting an improvised patch over one eye. He lost use of the eye during a previous Gilets Jaunes demonstration, apparently to debris from a flashbang.

I was expecting violence but it’s intensity surprised me. The march was initially well contained by police, but during the afternoon the authorities lost control. The Gilets Jaunes rampaged across a slice of central Paris south of the Seine, while masked men skirmished with police at the front and tail of the procession. In the middle, the protestors, or more accurately radical factions within their ranks, could pretty much do whatever they liked.

I lost count of the number of damaged banks I walked past, their windows and ATM’s smashed and exterior walls dabbed with anti-capitalist graffiti. Other favoured targets included estate agents and luxury cars. Several of the latter, along with piles of debris and countless bins, were burnt. A security van was set on fire at the edge of the Eiffel Tower complex, to the horror and confusion of tourists.

President Macron has thrown just about everything at the Gilets Jaunes, thus far with limited success. The planned fuel tax increases were scrapped in December, and a package of tax cuts for low income workers was announced. Last month Macron announced a “grand debate”, to take place in town halls across France, where the discontent can voice their concerns. French media have reported the President is considering holding a national referendum of some kind in response to the Gilets Jaunes, though this is said to be deeply controversial within his government.

The size of Gilets Jaunes protests has fallen, but the movement has not gone away. As long as it continues to simmer it has the potential to reignite in the spring or summer, a more traditional time for insurrectionary behaviour. Macron is struggling to contain a coalition which lacks either coherent demands or clear leaders. Making meaningful concessions to a movement which incorporates far left and right factions, on top of a lower middle and working class base, was never going to be easy. Efforts by Gilets Jaunes splinter groups to enter electoral politics could end by helping Macron, by taking votes from the extremes of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But the President needs to be careful. France is one of the few advanced democracies where governments can still be dictated to by the street, and the Gilets Jaunes aren’t going away.


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