OPINION: France’s ‘yellow vest’ conflict is heading into calamitous new territory

The latest violence at the "yellow vest" demo in Paris where one of the leaders of the Gilets Jaunes was gravely wounded must act as a warning to both protesters, police and politicians, writes John Lichfield. Otherwise the conflict is heading into tragic and calamitous new territory.

OPINION: France's 'yellow vest' conflict is heading into calamitous new territory
The injury to one of the yellow vest leaders could see protests lurch towards calamity and tragedy.

The Gilets Jaunes street protests are already the longest running and most violent in recent French history.

The events in Paris on Saturday, when a yellow vest leader, Jérôme Rodrigues, was gravely wounded in his right eye, are a stark warning to both sides.

The longer the confrontations go on, the more likely it becomes that there will be a grave incident or a series of incidents, which take the conflict into calamitous and tragic new territory.

The warning looks likely to be ignored – by both sides.

Gilets Jaunes leaders (who claim not be leaders but act more and more like leaders) are exploiting the incident to try to galvanize their flagging and splintering movement.

Eric Drouet, the 33 years old truck driver who is now the de facto leading yellow vest, called on Saturday night for a retaliatory “rising without precedent by all useful and necessary means”. He then denied, hypocritically, that this was a call for violent rebellion.

The government, although clearly worried by the incident, is refusing to bow to calls for the withdrawal of rubber-bullets and stun grenades used by almost no other security forces in the European Union.

The injury to Mr Rodrigues (see photo below), who was filming the violence at Place de la Bastille but not behaving violently, was initially thought to have been caused by a splinter from a stun grenade or “grenade de désencerclement”. Although Mr Rodrigues claims he was also hit by flashball – a controversial rubber bullet fired by police.

Up to 17 other people have lost eyes since the protests began on 17 November, mostly through being hit by police rubber (actually hard foam) bullets which are not supposed to be aimed at the face or head. 

According to the government, 1,700 protesters and 1,000 policemen or gendarmes have been injured in the 11 weeks of conflict.

The government insists that “defensive bullets” and stun grenades, containing a dose of TNT, are necessary to defend police from violent attacks. If the security forces were disarmed, ministers say, there would be hand to hand combat which would cause even more serious injuries.

Laurent Nunez, the deputy minister for the interior, said yesterday: “I have also to think of the 45 police officers and gendarmes who were injured on Saturday…by missiles and by acid.”

Who is most responsible for the violence of the last 11 weeks?

Despite lurid claims on Gilets Jaunes sites, it is utterly wrong to say that the government or police have set out to suppress protest. All peaceful demonstrations, even those which were undeclared and illegal, have been allowed to proceed without police intervention.

The violence has invariably been started by a fringe of violent, provincial Gilets Jaunes and their allies from the urban militia of the ultra-right and ultra-left. The destruction and arson in Paris on December and the weekly vandalism and car-burning in Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rouen, Caen and other cities were not provoked by police action.

Saturday was a case in point. A march by around 4,000 yellow vests reached Bastille without incident.  Then a group of about 100 ultra-left activists began to pelt police with missiles and erect a burning barrier.

The police intervened violently to clear them from the square. Mr Rodrigues was struck in the eye.

The Gilets Jaunes movement claims to be peaceful. Many of its members abhor violence. Others condone it. Others clearly seek it.

Quite apart from the violence during the Saturday demonstrations, there have been scores of attacks on the homes and offices of pro-Macron politicians, on public buildings and on motorway toll areas.

On Saturday, rival groups of far left and far right youths, all wearing Gilets Jaunes, fought each other on the Boulevard Diderot in eastern Paris (see tweet below).


Two moderate Gilets Jaunes leaders, Jacline Mouraud and Ingrid Vavasseur, who are trying to set up political wings of the movement, have been inundated with threats of violence from other yellow vests in the last few days.

By my observation, police and gendarmes deployed each weekend for 11 weeks in succession have mostly behaved with restraint and discipline. There have, however, been disturbing incidents of police beatings of captive demonstrators; of unnecessarily violent arrests; and misuse of rubber bullets and stun grenades.

In the film which Mr Rodrigues took just before he was injured on Saturday, an officer can be seen pointing a weapon at him though he was not involved in the violence.

Trained riot police officers blamed much of the police brutality on mobile units of plain-clothes “anti-gang” police who have been drafted in to help cope with the weekend protests. They are “cowboys”, they say, who are not properly trained in how to use their “non-lethal” weapons.

(French Police in Marseille arrest a yellow vest protesters covered in blood. AFP)

 Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, has refused to criticise police publicly. He has even insisted, against all evidence, that there have been no incidents of police brutality.

An internal police investigation has been started into Saturday’s events at Bastille. Over 100 other similar investigations are ongoing.

There is an obvious danger that the injury to Mr Rodrigues – one of the more peaceful and sensible Gilet Jaunes leaders – will be used to justify violent attacks on the police next Saturday.

There is a danger that the security forces, exhausted by 11 weeks of deployment, will abandon what remains of their restraint.

The Gilets Jaunes “leadership”, despite the rabble-rousing comments of Eric Drouet, is now appealing for calm. So is Mr Rodrigues. If they are truly opposed to violence, they would abandon the sequence of Saturday protests. That is not going to happen.

It is also time for the government to break the spiral of violence by announcing that it will progressively abandon the use of rubber bullets and stun grenades. That is not going to happen either.    

John Lichfield is a journalist based in France. He is the former France correspondent and foreign editor for The Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield




Member comments

  1. Guy loses an eye and calling attention to it is “exploiting the incident”…Litchfield is so right-wing. I’d like to see if Litchfield would call it “exploiting the incident” if he lost his eye?

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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.