ANALYSIS: The savage violence in Paris was not a protest, it was an insurrection

The savage violence which erupted in Paris on Saturday was not a protest. It was an insurrection, writes John Lichfield, who witnessed the destruction and disorder around the Arc de Triomphe first hand.

ANALYSIS: The savage violence in Paris was not a protest, it was an insurrection
All Photos: AFP

The rivers of destruction which spread down the avenues radiating from around the Arc de Triomphe at the Place de L'Etoile were fed not just by social anger but by a kind of self-righteous hatred.

A hatred of Emmanuel Macron. A hatred of the police. A hatred of the state. And a hatred of Paris as a symbol of the unshared wealth and success of Metropolitan France.

Six buildings were set alight, dozens of restaurants and shops sacked and pillaged and over 100 cars burned, including every car along one section of the Avenue Kléber. The Arc de Triomphe, symbol of French Republican pride, was vandalised and tagged with insulting graffiti. 

Myths are already being propagated about the Battle of Paris in the gilet jaunes’ own social media. They are being echoed, in part, by the government and by sections of the French press.

No, the violence was not largely the work of a fringe of “casseurs” (thugs) and “professional trouble-makers”. No, it was not provoked by the riot police, who behaved with almost super-human discipline and restraint.

No, the “ordinary” gilets jaunes were not prevented from demonstrating peacefully.


I was on the avenues and streets surrounding the Arc de Triomphe most of the day. The “casseurs” (thugs) were, actively or by consent, the overwhelming majority of the 10,000 gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in the capital.

At least 70 per cent, by my reckoning, were not urban guerrillas from the ultra-right or from the anarchist left. They were amateur provincial guerrillas. They came from the radical parts of the gilets jaunes movement in suffering areas of northern or western France or from the outer Paris suburbs. They were mostly men in their 20s and 30s but there were many older men and some women. 

There were certainly Paris-based politically-driven thugs of extreme left and right at the heart of the violence. I overheard one group who were speaking in Italian. 

But the overwhelming majority of the yellow vests who hurled paving stones at the police or overturned and burned cars were from the French provinces. Of the 287 people arrested on Saturday, two thirds were from outside Paris.

At one point a man in his 50s, speaking with a northern French accent, pointed at an Arc de Triomphe clouded by tear-gas and disfigured with graffiti. He said to me: “Terrible. But it’s still beautiful, isn’t it? Now maybe Macron will listen to us.”

The violence was at once planned and disorganised. As the main throng was pushed back from the Place de L'Etoile, they spread down the radiating avenues smashing and burning cars, and pillaging banks, shops and restaurants.

There was also violence on the margins of largely peaceful gilets jaunes demonstrations in Avignon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes, Tours and Dijon. But no other city saw the kind of systematic destruction which was visited yesterday on some of the grandest and most famous avenues in the capital.

How did it come to this? Who is to blame?

How can it be prevented from happening again next Saturday? How can it be stopped from happening on every weekend in December when Paris would normally be thronged with pre-Christmas shoppers and tourists?

The yellow vest protests began a month ago as a rebellion against green taxes and a spike in petrol and diesel prices. Pump prices have since fallen dramatically with the world oil price. The protests have shape-shifted into a wider cry of anguish against the high cost of living, unemployment and poor local services in small provincial towns and hard-scrabble outer suburbs of the thriving French metropolitan areas.

Emmanuel Macron and his government were undoubtedly slow to take the movement seriously but it is foolish to blame the long-standing problems of Peripheral France on a president who has only been in office for 18 months. It is time for opposition politicians in France to stop pretending that Macron is the only source of yellow jacket anger. 

Many, many yellow vests are decent, frustrated, suffering people. They no longer believe that any of the mainstream political movements – or even Marine Le Pen’s Far Right  or Jean-Luc Mélenchon Hard Left – will do anything to help them.  

They talk of a new “movement of the people and for the people” but have declined so far to choose recognised leaders or to put forward a united programme. When eight gilets jaunes “spokesmen and women” were chosen last week, they were immediately repudiated by other parts of the movement. Six of the spokespeople refused to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe after receiving violent threats from other gilets jaunes. 

In other words, this instant, anti-political, political movement not only detests the young technocratic President who was elected only last year. It detests anyone from within its own ranks who “put themselves forward as above the rest.”

As a result the gilets jaunes risk falling into the clutches of a destructive, know-nothing and anti-democratic fringe – not a fringe of “entryist” political thugs but a fringe of desperate and unthinking people from within the movement itself.   

After yesterday’s violence, the gilet jaunes are talking once again of creating a structure to negotiate with the government. Good luck with that.

The government is talking of imposing a state of emergency to prevent a second battle of Paris next weekend. It is not clear how that would help. 

There must be other gestures to calm tempers and separate the peaceful gilets jaunes from the thugs in yellow.

The government’s eco-taxes on car fuel are justified. Macron has already promised a mechanism to modulate fuel taxes when the world oil price is high. Nonetheless, he should bow to the gravity of the situation. He should suspend the further pump tax increase due next month while discussions with rational gilets jaunes get under way.

A pacifying dialogue may yet emerge. I fear, however, that the insurrectional thugs who laid waste to Paris on Saturday have no interest in dialogue. They simply want to vent their anger – and, yes, their hatred –  on a “bourgeois”, successful Metropolitan France which has ignored them for decades.

John Lichfield is the former France correspondent and foreign editor of The Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter HERE.

To read more Opinion and Analysis on France from John Lichfield CLICK HERE.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.