Anarchists, butchers and finance workers: A look at the Paris rioters

Sometimes bruised or with black eyes, demonstrators arrested during anti-government rioting in central Paris on Saturday have appeared in court, showcasing the diverse backgrounds of the people on the streets.

Anarchists, butchers and finance workers: A look at the Paris rioters
Photo: AFP
Police detained a total of 412 people during the worst clashes in decades in the centre of the French capital which saw security forces pelted with stones, more than 200 vehicles torched and numerous shops vandalised.
The first 57 suspects who joined the so-called “yellow vest” protests appeared in fast-track courts on Monday, with dozens of others set to go before magistrates on Tuesday.
The overwhelmingly male cast of characters, some sporting visible injuries, included many low-income people from provincial France who came to the capital to express their anger.
“With everything that has happened to me in the last 48 hours, I don’t want to ever come back,” 20-year-old Martial Pissonier, dressed in a leather jacket, said in one of the five court rooms hearing cases on Monday.

It's personal: What the yellow vests really want is Macron on his kneesPhoto: AFP

The truck driver from the town of Roubaix in northeast France was found to be carrying an extendable metal baton when arrested, something the prosecutor described as troubling.  

“You don’t come to a demonstration with an extendable baton to defend yourself,” he said.
Others included Valentin Lequitte, a 27-year-old with a history of alcohol addiction, who had more than a dozen previous criminal convictions including for resisting arrest, drink-driving and abusing police officers.
The mechanic from the town of Dreux, an hour’s drive west of Paris, was accused of joining crowds who threw stones at police and was seen giving security forces the middle-finger.
“I don’t want to go back to prison. I’ve got a job, an apartment,” he pleaded in court, adding that he was trying to change but that “alcohol ruins everything”.
Michael, a 30-year-old unemployed man from the Rhone region of southeast France, was described by prosecutors as an anarchist after being found wearing a black sweatshirt with ACAB on it, which stands for  “All Cops are Bastards”.
The French government has repeatedly blamed far-right and far-left thugs for the violence in Paris on two successive weekends since the start of the yellow vest protests on November 17. 
Riot police head-charge
Others in court had no criminal past and seemingly no radical political views, but were instead the sort of frustrated low-income workers who have joined the “yellow vest” movement in droves.
What started out as protests against the introduction of new fuel taxes has spiralled into a broad opposition front to Macron and his pro-business economic reforms since he took power in May 2017.
Stephane, a 45-year-old butcher from the Hautes Alpes area of eastern France, said it was the first time he had joined a demonstration like the one on the Champs-Elysees on Saturday.
Photo: AFP
He was accused of charging head-first into a line of riot police, known as CRS.
“I would have liked the CRS to come and shake us by the hand, to put themselves on the people’s side,” he told the court.
One 22-year-old from the Parisian suburbs, defied any stereotyping: the master’s student was said to earn over €2,000 a month working part-time in the finance department of the national postal service.
He was accused of building barricades in the street, attempting to harm police officers and possessing cannabis.
His lawyer urged magistrates not to impose a restraining order that would have banned him from the capital, because he had studies to pursue at the Paris School of Business.
The strain on police and the justice system caused by so many cases was also evident at the recently opened new Paris city court complex, designed bystar Italian architect Renzo Piano.
“The conditions for the defence are completely unacceptable,” one lawyer complained, adding that she had six clients and had spent only a few minutes with each of them.
Many suspects opted to have their trials deferred to prepare their defence, with hearings set to resume next year.
In most cases, magistrates ordered the suspects to report to police regularly until their trials, starting on Saturday morning when another day of protests has been announced.
There were also numerous cases of instant acquittals due to the flimsiness of evidence provided by police.
 A 50-year-old nurse from Nice walked free saying he had been randomly arrested while walking in the Bastille area of Paris.
“Violence is not part of my thinking,” he said, adding that he was a regular practitioner of yoga and meditation.

Member comments

  1. It would seem that they have brought this on themselves. For years there have been demonstrations that in other countries would have been deemed illegal, with roads being blocked with barricades, burning tires, vehicles and bodies, and criminal acts perpetrated. And what happens? Nothing. The police stand by and watch doing little to nothing. Is it surprising that France now has a demonstration that has got out of hand? From small beginnings larger things grow. It only takes a few people to realise that if they protest in large enough numbers, the police will do nothing but watch, and so it snowballed joined by all those who either want to destroy for its own sake, attack the police or just sack and steal what they can from some shops.
    If the French population want an example of where them could be heading, remember Greece. The country ran out of cash. The people did not want to pay taxes and actively avoided doing so. Remind you of anything?
    If you want greater spending on the social services and/or anything else, you have to pay for it, and that money comes from raised taxes.
    It would be interesting to know how many of the ‘deprived’ demonstrators have cell phones, TV’s, computers, fridge freezers, washing machines, etc., etc., in short all the modern conveniences people EXPECT but are rarely grateful for, as it is considered their right.
    My opinions yes, but having grown up with one bath a week (no hot water), no car, no TV, no washing machine, no fridge, and one radio for the whole family, in the words of MacMillan, “you have never had it so good”.

  2. Totally agree with the above comments,I’m a Vic chauffeur working for the largest limo company in for the cops standing on street corners doing f.a. I was attact during the last big taxi strike for being a ….Vic. I had clients in the car’10 taxi drivers tried to rip the wing mirrors off’smashed Thé rear window tried to yank the doors off’then Punched me in the face as I had opened the window to talk to them.five cops standing in front of the concord laffeyett hôtel saw what was happening and did nothing to help me ,just looked.about right for the c.r s.

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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.”