‘Of course we’re scared’: Paris prepares for the worst

Residents living around the upmarket Champs-Elysees area of Paris have told The Local of their worries as protesters gear up to hit the French capital once again on Saturday, with the government fearing a repeat of last weekend's violence.

'Of course we're scared': Paris prepares for the worst
Photo: The Local
Last weekend's 'unprecedented violence' saw buildings set alight, dozens of restaurants and shops sacked and pillaged and over 100 cars burned in the plush west of Paris around the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees and Opera.
Protesters are due once again to descend on the area on Saturday and residents are naturally scared.
“Of course I'm scared about what will happen tomorrow and I'm not planning to leave the house,” Isabelle Rochas told The Local
In preparation for tomorrow's protests, police authorities are preparing to deploy around 8,000 officers in the French capital as well as having 12 armored vehicles ready to use if Saturday's protests descend into violence.
And the French presidency said on Thursday that it fears “major violence” will occur during the demonstrations and the interior ministry has spoken of the likely presence of the “extreme-right who dream of a revolution and the extreme-left who advocate insurrection”. 
So, with this in mind, it's little surprise that residents living on the avenues surrounding the Arc de Triomphe monument, are nervous about Act IV (Act 4) — the name given to the fourth weekend of protests in France. 
Shop windows being boarded up ahead of the December 1st protests. Photo: AFP
'Ruining other people's lives' 
“At the beginning I was in favour of the gilets jaunes and what they were trying to do but since last week it seems to have degenerated into a movement of people whose goal is to destroy everything,” said Rochas.
“The problem is people keep talking about these casseurs (hard core rioters) but I think some of the yellow vests who were originally reasonable and fairly mild have been swept up in the violence because they think it's the only way they can get what they want.” 
Another resident agreed that last week's violence had changed their opinion on the 'yellow vests'. 
“There are legitimate problems in France, with a growing gap between the rich and the poor, but that's no reason to smash other people's property and make fellow citizens suffer,” said Guillaume Bayou. 
“I'm worried that they will keep on doing this with the more extreme elements getting angrier and angrier but I don't know how they expect to have people's support if they're using this kind of violence.”
Some residents have decided that they are not taking any risks this weekend and are taking measures such as leaving for the weekend or moving their cars. 
Demonstrators hold a banner reading “People in dire straits, let's kill the bourgeois” during the December 1st protests. Photo: AFP 
“I'm not staying around to see how bad it gets,” one resident who did not want to be named told The Local. “These people shouldn't be able to stop others living their lives the way they want to.”
“In France you are allowed to protest and that is right but it's one thing to protest and another thing to ruin other people's lives.”
Another resident said he would be moving his car due to the “lamentable” situation, saying he didn't want to discuss the 'yellow vests' in detail because he “hates them”. 
Many shops and apartment blocks were being boarded up on the streets leading off the Champs-Elysees on Friday morning as the graffiti from last week's protests remained intact. 
The owner of L'Etoile Venitienne cafe on Avenue Kleber, who only gave her name as Madame Co told The Local that she would be closing for the day after the front window was smashed last weekend. 
“I'm scared about what will happen tomorrow and I'm worried it will continue for a long time to come,” she said. 
“The ordinary people with genuine concerns that seemed to start the movement need to separate themselves from the extremists and call themselves something different if they want support.”
Another cafe owner said they would also be shutting up tomorrow and boarding the windows because their insurance provider had advised them to. 
However not everyone was concerned by the prospect of further protests. 
“If I was a shop owner or business owner I would be worried but I'm not concerned for my own safety,” said Eric Dupont who lives and works in the area. 
“I think they'll target big shops not apartment buildings,” he said. 
“We [the French] are revolutionaries,” said Dupont. “It's what we know and how we know to get things done. I see where they're coming from but I can't justify the violence.” 
Surprisingly one resident said he thought the violence was in fact justified and that it was necessary for the gilets jaunes to pursue it in order to get the government to listen. 
Macron 'the scapegoat'?
When it came to the question of what the government and French President Emmanuel Macron could and should do to help the situation, people were divided. 
Some believed the French president was merely a scapegoat for decades of problems. 
“The problem for the government is it's a mix of people who are demonstrating, with different goals and politics,” said Dupont. “The government has already given into scrapping the fuel tax but they can't keep bending over because they'll no longer be seen as credible.”
“The yellow vests hate Macron because he is hard on them but really France is a very hard country to lead and he is suffering for 30-40 years of mistakes.”
“Now it feels like a bit like they [the 'yellow vests'] are destroying for the sake of destroying.”
A workman removing a grate on the Champs-Elysees ahead of the December 1st protests. Photo: AFP
Dupont went on to say that he thought that people in other countries were experiencing the same problems as the ones the gilets jaunes were protesting over in France. 
“You see it in Britain with Brexit and in the US with Trump but the way we deal with it in France is to take to the streets. I don't think anyone has found the solution”
Others said the president needed to “find a solution and quickly”. 
“He can't let this just carry on,” said Isabelle Rochas who lives in the area. “But on the other hand I don't have the answers.
“There are people suffering that's for sure and now we are being made to pay.
“Something must be done.” 

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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.”