Rioting in Paris: What went wrong and how will Macron respond now?
The French government has admitted its security measures had been "insufficient" to stem an arson and looting rampage by black-clad anarchists during Act 18 of the "yellow vest" protests along the famous Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday. So, what happens now?
Published: 18 March 2019 10:48 CET
Protesters hold a French national flag reading "Freedom, Equality, Fraternity, my Ass!" on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on March 16th. Photo: AFP
Police appeared overwhelmed Saturday as a hardcore of black-clad protesters along with a hardened fringe of yellow vests ran amok on the Champs-Elysées avenue, with around 80 shops and businesses vandalised.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe acknowledged on Sunday there had been security “flaws” which needed to be rectified.
President Emmanuel Macron, who cut short a skiing trip over the violence, and the French government are set to come up with a series of measures to prevent the same situation from happening again.
But can anything be done to prevent the looting and burning?
Some 80 shops and businesses on the Champs-Elysées avenue in Paris were vandalised this weekend when “yellow vest” protesters went on the rampage, with about 20 looted or torched, retailers said on Sunday.
Saturday's demonstrations were characterised by a sharp increase in violence after weeks of dwindling turnout, with hooded protesters looting and torching shops along the famed avenue.
It was the 18th consecutive weekend of demonstrations which began in mid-November as a protest against fuel price hikes but have since morphed into a potent anti-government movement.
The demonstrators also set fire to a bank situated on the ground floor of an apartment building, which was engulfed by flames.
The fire service evacuated the residents and extinguished the blaze. Eleven people, including two fire fighters, suffered minor injuries, the fire service told AFP.
A mother of four children, including a nine-month-old baby, told AFP they escaped via the stairs after seeing the fire from their window.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner in a tweet accused the arsonists of being “neither demonstrators, nor trouble-makers” but “murderers” and French President Emmanuel Macron cut short a skiing trip in the Pyrenees to return to Paris for a crisis meeting.
He vowed to take “strong decisions” to prevent further violence, following the emergency talks held at the interior ministry late Saturday.
What went wrong?
Essentially, the security forces deployed to maintain order on Saturday were not prepared for the planned violence that was coming their way and from 11 am on Saturday, the police seemed completely overwhelmed by the situation on the Champs-Elysees.
The authorities had underestimated the number of violent participants in the crowd, with the police expecting around 500 troublemakers when in fact there were around three times as many, according to official estimates.
Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez admitted on RTL radio on Monday that police “were less aggressive, less reactive than usual” over the weekend, promising a review of the instructions given to officers and their deployment.
“Analysis of yesterday's events highlights that the measures taken were insufficient to contain the violence and prevent wrongdoing” by the rioters, the prime minister's office said on Sunday.
Police unions also complained about the new bullets for the controversial defence ball launchers, known by the French abbreviation LBDs, which normally shoot 40-millimeter rubber projectiles, were not effective enough.
“We were given some 'marshmallow' ammunition that did not go far enough, if we had 'flashballs' (LBDs) with ammunition that allowed us to hold the individuals at about 30 meters, maybe the restaurant Fouquet's would not have burned,” said Loïc Lecouplier from the Alliance police union.
Since Saturday's events, the unions have argued that the police were under-equipped, giving the advantage to the troublemakers.
“You have to take responsibility and engage, with the possibility that people will get hurt,” said Frederic Lagache of the Alliance police union.
What is the government going to do about it?
The French prime minister is set to meet Macron on Monday to propose solutions to the situation, with the president making it clear that he wants to hit back hard after Saturday's events.
“Now it's over. I insist that this type of scene can not be repeated, especially on this avenue,” said the French president.
So far nothing concrete has been announced however it looks like measures are likely to be tough and it has been mooted that there could even be a ban on demonstrations on the Champs-Elysees.
But the government has tried this in the run up to Christmas, and it failed to prevent violence.
“We will make announcements … when they are decided. It needs a bit of work, and should not be done hastily,” the government announced Sunday night to explain the silence of Édouard Philippe and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner after a crisis meeting.
According to Le Parisien, other areas of the French capital could also be blocked off by police units and no doubt more police will be deployed across the city.
And it won't come as a surprise that there is a lot of pressure on the French government, amid accusations of mishandling the situation, to make sure their measures go far enough.
Deputy mayor of Versailles for the right-wing Les Republicains party said on Sunday that “this government has failed”.
Meanwhile Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has been summoned to appear before the French Senate on Tuesday along with Minister of the Economy Bruno Le Maire, to explain the violence and the economic consequences.
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?
Published: 3 September 2020 11:53 CEST Updated: 12 September 2020 08:58 CEST
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
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.
“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.
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.”