‘We’re not in Paris for a picnic’: Yellow vest protesters to ignore police warnings

UPDATED: 'Yellow vest' protesters are on course for a clash with police in Paris on Saturday after unofficial leaders of the movement said they would ignore police requests to hold their rally near the Eiffel Tower. The Paris police chief has warned the Champs-Elysees - where the "gilets jaunes" want to march - would be on lockdown.

'We're not in Paris for a picnic': Yellow vest protesters to ignore police warnings
Photo: AFP
The French interior ministry has approved a 'yellow vest' (gilets jaunes) rally on the Champ de Mars, near the Eiffel Tower in the 7th arrondissement of the French capital for this Saturday, saying it offers the “necessary security conditions” for the gathering.
The gilet jaunes who have been protesting against rising fuel taxes and a general decline in living standards said they wanted to stage a rally at Place de la Concorde in central Paris however permission for this was denied by the government for security reasons.  
But it doesn't look like the gilets jaunes are planning to play by the rules set by the government.
It seems that “at least three separate” gatherings are being considered by the nebulous protest group, including — despite being refused permission — a rally at Place de la Concorde in the morning, as well as two others in the afternoon in Bastille in the 11th arrondissement and the Champ de Mars. 
Priscillia Ludosky, one of the unofficial spokespeople of the movement told French media LCI that the “yellow vests” had rejected the offer to demonstrate at the Champs de Mars.
“The demonstration will not take place at this location,” she said.
Another unofficial spokesperson Laetitia Dewalle said: “We are not just going to have a giant picnic on the grass” at the Champs de Mars.
She added that protesters would organise a “citizens movement in the streets of Paris.”
“To gather like little sheep to graze on the grass is not our objective. We want to make ourselves heard and seen.”
Benjamin Cauchy one of the leaders of the yellow vest movement in Toulouse said he like others would head to the streets around the Champs-Elysees.
“Don't you think it's a provocation to prevent citizens from going where they want?” he told BFM TV. “What you don't understand is that this movement is unprecedented.”  
On Facebook pages set up to organise the protests, participants are still instructed to meet at Place de la Concorde at 8 am, despite the ban. Judging by comments many are planning to travel to the capital from as far away as Brest in Brittany and Marseille and Grenoble in the south.
On Thursday Interior Minister Christophe Castener said “several requests had been filed” for protests in Paris and the Champ de Mars, a large public green space next to the Eiffel Tower, “can accommodate the protesters”. 
There will also be a security presence to protect “sensitive areas” in the French capital, said the minister.
On Friday Paris police chief Michel Delpuech warned that “no one would be able to get on to the Champs Elysees” or Place de la Concorde.
He told BFM TV that the streets around the famous avenue will be closed off and that protesters must head to the designated area at the Champs de Mars.
“We have an area in which we can secure the rally, it's the Champ de Mars. There will be a large security perimeter around the Elysee Palace and the protests won't be able to pass,” Delpuech said.
He warned that protesters would be arrested if they ignored the perimeter but accepted that the protests could be infiltrated by so-called casseurs – rioters who are intent on causing maximum damage.
The leader of the far-right National Rally party Marine Le Pen poured oil on the fire on Friday by saying the gilets jaunes had every right to demonstrate on the Champs-Elysees.
“What justifies banning people from protesting on the Champs-Elysees when many other gatherings – like during the World Cup or at New Year can take place there?” Le Pen said.
The information suggests that at least 30,000 people are expected to attend, including “80 to 120 far right radicals” and “100 to 200 activists from the far left”. 
Between 100 and 200 taxi and private hire cab drivers are also set to bolster the protests which authorities expect will see traffic blocked at strategic places in the city, including Place de l'Etoile and Porte Maillot in the west of the city.
Last Saturday thousands of Gilets Jaunes protesters flocked into Paris and brought the Champs Elysees to a halt before marching on the Elysee Palace. They were eventually pushed back by riot police amid ugly scenes.
“November 24th, Paris is blocked, November 24th, Paris is dead,” Frank Buhler, one of the people behind the movement told AFP.
“I hope there will be a real yellow wave,” he said, referring to the yellow jackets worn by the protesters. 
According to Le Parisien, it is believed the political protesters may attempt to grab the attention of the media towards the end of the day around the Elysée Palace or “provoke the police and damage shops.”
If this happens no doubt it will give credence to the idea touted by some that the protest movement is nothing more than a bunch of thugs and anarchists rather than just ordinary people who feel like they are being left behind by the government's elitist politics

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Is France’s ‘yellow vest’ movement really on its way back?

Nearly two years since 'yellow-vest' protesters flooded the streets, the signature gilets jaunes have become a rare sight in France. With a comeback announced on September 12th, what is left of the movement that shook France?

Is France's 'yellow vest' movement really on its way back?
Yellow vest protests in Paris in 2019. Photo: AFP

When Priscillia Ludosky put on a yellow vest for the first time and headed out to the Champs Elysées to protest, she had no idea that nearly 300,000 people would do the same.

It was November 17th, 2018, the first 'yellow vest' protest in the capital and the birth of a mass-movement so large that its vows to overthrow French President Emmanuel Macron’s government seemed, for a moment, credible. 

Nearly two years later, Macron is still president – and aiming for reelection – while the ‘yellow vest’ movement has all but disappeared from the public eye.

“It’s been a long time since I wore the yellow vest,” Priscillia Ludosky, founder and leading figure of the movement, told The Local.

She had not left the movement, but said she was less active than she had been.

“I'm less on-the-ground than I used to. The pandemic put the brakes on most things,” she said.

Despite France's rising coronavirus rates, the 'yellow vests' have declared a comeback protest on September 12th, promising to “never give up”.


But with the protests before lockdown gathering only a fraction of the numbers they once rallied, how much is there really left of the 'yellow vests'?

“The movement is much smaller, much less active, and much more divided than it was at the outset,” historian Sylvain Boulouque told The Local.

Boulouque has followed the movement from the beginning and has written the book Mensonges en gilet jaune (Lies in yellow vests), about the role social media and fake news played in fuelling the 'yellow vests' anger.

When the ‘yellow vests’ first spiralled into a national mass-movement, their rallying cry “Macron demission !” (Macron resign) was the one ringing the loudest, and it was also one of the few demands that all of the ‘yellow vests’ could unite behind.

“The movement spans all the way from the extreme-left to the extreme-right. There is no unity on the fundamental political questions,” Boulouque said.

The more time passed, the more the movement's internal divisions became clear. Today, Boulouque said, there was “a little bit of everything” left, and just keeping track of the movement had become a challenge.

“It’s so local that the demographic changes from town to town and week to week,” he said.

Among the extreme right-wing were a number of conspiracy theory believers, he said, including anti-mask activists who opposed the French government's new rules on masks.

Pro- and anti-masks was just the newest fault line dividing the 'yellow vests', Boulouque said.

“The pandemic will split them rather than reunite them,” he said.

‘Covid proved our points’

Seizing on the pandemic to re-mobilise the masses is what the still-active 'yellow vests' hope to do on September 12th.

Leading 'yellow vest' figure Jérôme Rodrigues. Photo: AFP

Jérôme Rodrigues, another ‘yellow vest’ leading figure, told Slate that the pandemic was their “best ally”.

“Covid proved our points about the degrading of the health system and the limits of the capitalist system,” Rodrigues said.

When the French government imposed a nationwide, strict lockdown in March, it was to save the hospitals in hard-hit areas such as Paris from the mounting pressure of a rapidly increasing patient flow. 

The lockdown, which lasted over two months, had a crippling impact on the economy and saw the government spend billions on emergency help schemes to prevent chain bankruptcies and mass layoffs. 

Despite the government's efforts to kickstart the economy, France’s unemployment rate is set to increase by 10 percent by the end of the year. Young people will be the worst affected, according to France’s national institute for statistics, Insee. Rodrigues predicted that the looming downturn would reaffirm people's faith in the 'yellow vest' movement.

“With the coming crisis, people who were doing well financially and who have never had a hard time are going to fall flat on their faces,” Rodrigues said.

'Yellow vest' leading figure Priscillia Ludosky has been participating in protests against police violence and in support of France's hospital sector the past months. Photo: AFP

'Sensationalist media'

Rodrigues became a symbol of the ‘yellow vests’ after he was hit in the eye by what he claimed to be an LBD rubber bullet fired by police (the police refute his accusation, but the authority overseeing the police has launched an investigation into the matter). 

Blinded in one eye, Rodrigues incorporated one of the most jarring features of the protests: their increasingly violent character. The recurring scenes of violence that dominated the protests contributed to the ‘yellow vests’ hogging headlines for months – not just in France, but across the world. 

Images of burning cars, police armed with rubber-bullet guns, violent fist-fights and black-clad protesters smashing ATMs with baseball bats shocked the world. 

But the violence also dominated the media coverage of the protests, which meant what the protesters were saying got less attention.

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence

To Ludosky, this was a big problem.

“The media won’t cover anything unless it’s sensationalist,” she said. 

Ludosky authored the online petition that became the catalyst for the ‘yellow vest’ protests. In it, she wrote that the government’s proposed carbon tax was both falsely branded a green policy and was harmful to the many people who depended on their cars to get around every day.

The document went viral and gathered more than one million signatures, and the fluorescent yellow vest that all vehicles in France must be equipped with became the symbol of the masses revolting against the elites.

Ludosky said her main point was lost in the coverage. She was not an angry car-enthusiast defending her right to drive, she was saying that the tax was unfair and would impact the most on the poorest.

“The longer we protested, the more they tried to tell everyone that we don't know what we want. That we were only out there to break things,” she said.

The early days of the movement saw hundreds of 'roundabout protests' in the French provinces. Photo: AFP

'They are there'

The violence also discouraged many of the 'yellow vests' who had little experience with protesting and were shocked by the use of force on both sides.

Danielle Tartakowsky, a professor at the Paris 8 University who specialises in social movements in contemporary France, said it was important to distinguish between the ‘yellow vest’ who still turned up to protests in Paris – often young, keen and ready to go head to head with police – and the ‘yellow vests’ mobilising in less urban areas.

“In the countryside the ‘yellow vest’ movement is the same as it was at the outset,” she said.

In her new book, On est là ! (We’re here), a main ‘yellow vest’ rallying cry, she concludes just that; the movement had changed, but the ‘yellow vests’ were still present.

“That does not mean that they are ready to rally in the same ways, but it would be dangerous and delusional to say that they have disappeared,” she said.

Tartakowsky said that, while the 'yellow vests' successes could seem limited from the outside, they had pushed through important change indirectly by showing that it was possible to force through change.

“Even if they did not win on all points they showed that it was possible to win something, to make the government backpedal,” she said, referring to the carbon tax.

The camp

When the protests started, the roundabout became the main stage for the protesters who did not travel to Paris to make their discontent heard and seen in the capital. 

From June 2019 until March 2020, just before the pandemic hit with full force, Séverine spent most of her free time on a local roundabout where she and some 30 other ‘yellow vests’ had set up a camp.

A teacher in Amiens, a city a couple of hours north of Paris, Séverine was an early believer that the ‘yellow vests’ would be the movement that finally could radically change a system she saw as unjust, undemocratic and unsustainable.

“I passed all my evenings, all my weekends at the camp,” she said.

The camp was a microcosm of the world they hoped to create.

“We cooked together, discussed, we really had some great moments there together,” she said.

They were all kinds of people at the camp; a waiter, a metro driver, a nursery teacher, a few retirees. An Indian student who just needed somewhere to crash for free. 

“It was a very open environment,” Séverine said.

But the problems soon surfaced. The camp, like the movement, swore to a leaderless management style where no one had a final say.

“It was a mess. Obviously, we didn’t manage to make any decisions,” Séverine said.

Violence at protests became a major problem. Photo: AFP

'People are exhausted'

They split themselves into two groups. Oddly enough, the division had little to do with politics.

“It was not about left or right. We actually agreed on the fundamental issues. It was more about strong personalities and people simply not getting along,” she said.

The atmosphere soured. They argued more, discussed less. They went from 30, to 20, to about 10. Then, after the local election in March, just before the pandemic made social distancing the norm, the mayor told them to clear the camp. 

Critics have long said the ‘yellow vests’ lack of leadership was their major, perhaps the decisive, default. How could they push for change when they had no idea what they wanted?

Despite having become so disillusioned with the movement that she no longer knew if she wanted to call herself a ‘yellow vest’ at all, Séverine was not sure this was their main problem. 

“Demonstrating every weekend is tiring. It requires a significant commitment. I think people are exhausted,” she said.

'I was fed up'

In the months that followed the movement’s heyday in early 2019, the protests followed the same pattern as Séverine's camp.

They were increasingly sparse in numbers and the atmosphere increasingly tense and bitter.

“You're walking in a state of complete stress, afraid that someone is aiming at you. You don't hear the messages anymore,” Séverine said.

Five people have lost a hand in the protests. Twenty-five were blinded in an eye. According to government numbers, 2,500 protesters were hurt in the protests by the end of 2019, along with 1,800 police officers.

“No one could imagine that a movement could last this long without losing momentum,” Ludosky said.

“Keeping on going cost a lot to the people who got involved. It's money, time, people lost limbs, couples separated.”

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: French police are not all thugs – they are being placed in an impossible situation

Like many others, she was put off by the violence. In the end, she left her yellow vest in her car.

“I was fed up,” she said. “Every time I wore it I worried about the police controlling me.”

She was not sure if she still believed in the movement.

“It’s complicated. The presidential elections are coming up soon, crying out for Macron’s resignation doesn’t make sense anymore.”

“But the 12th will be the moment to go out on the streets. Not necessarily in Paris, but we need to show something.”