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.
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