‘War is declared’: ‘Yellow vests’ plan protests in nine French cities and a blockade of ports

The 'yellow vests' are gearing up for their 19th weekend of protests in France and the government is taking strong measures to keep order. Here's what you need to know about what is happening on Saturday.

'War is declared': 'Yellow vests' plan protests in nine French cities and a blockade of ports
A Yellow Vest protester gestures in front of a newsstand set alight during clashes with riot police forces on the Champs-Elysees in Paris o March 16th. Photo: AFP

This weekend is set to be something of a moment of truth for the French government as it prepares for fresh 'yellow vest' protests under the specter of last Saturday's violence.

During the 18th straight weekend of protests on Saturday March 16th, demonstrators looted and torched shops and businesses on the famed Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris in scenes reminiscent of the worst “yellow vest” riots in the French capital in December.

More events are planned for this weekend's so-called Act 19. 

Here's a look at what you need to know about what the protesters are planning and how the government has prepared. 

French plan for army backup in 'yellow vest' protests sparks backlashPhoto: AFP

How is the French government preparing?

It's fair to say the French government is not taking the situation lightly. 

After calling an emergency meeting after the events of last Saturday, a series of new measures to prevent the same situation from happening again were announced.

As a result there is a ban on demonstrations on the Champs-Elysees, Place de l'Etoile and Concorde, as well as in certain areas of other French cities, including Marseille in the south and Metz in the east. 

Protests will also be outlawed in much of the southern city of Nice, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on Sunday.

Protesters have been banned from gathering at Place Pey-Berland in Bordeaux and Place du Capitole in Toulouse.

“There are serious reasons to believe that violence and damages are likely during the scheduled demonstrations,” the Paris prefect's office said.

The fine for taking part in a banned demonstration has also been increased from €38 to €135.

Police will also be equipped with GLI F4 grenades, a tear gas and sound-only stun grenade, as well as more powerful ammunition for the Flash Ball riot guns, with some of the restrictions on the use of the controversial weapons lifted.

On top of these measures Paris police chief Michel Delpuech, 66, who has been in the job since April 2017, was replaced on Wednesday by Didier Lallement, the top police official in the southwest region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

French police chiefs came under fire for failing to control or prepare for the violence which erupted on the Champs-Elysées on Saturday when black-clad anarchists joined hardened yellow vest protesters looting and pillaging stores.

This Saturday the government has said that nearly 5,000 police officers will be deployed in the French capital along with anti-terrorist soldiers.
Addressing the new Paris police chief Didier Lallement on Thursday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner demanded a “zero tolerance” approach towards violent demonstrators.
Photo: AFP
“The violence has risen a notch, our response must be firm,” said Castaner, adding that he had “completely changed” the approach to the policing of the protests.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe stressed that the measures were in response to those intent on violence and not ordinary yellow vest demonstrators who have taken to the streets on Saturdays in recent months, but whose numbers have dipped.
“I am not mixing up the rioters (casseurs) with the large majority of yellow vests, who are no longer demonstrating…,” he said.
“All those who are participating in these undeclared demonstrations are complicit. Their only cause is violence.”
So, soldiers are going to patrol the streets of Paris?
The French government announced on Wednesday evening that French anti-terror soldiers will be on duty on Saturday for the next “yellow vest” protest in order to free up police officers to concentrate on crowd control.
The troops will be deployed on Saturday to help guard public buildings, allowing police to focus on dealing with 'yellow vest' demonstrators in case of renewed violence in Paris and other cities.
The decision quickly drew fire from opposition parties on both the left and right of the political spectrum who said the move was “irresponsible”. 
However French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on Friday that the soldiers will not be taking part in the policing of the protests and will not have any contact with the 'yellow vests'. 
French soldiers to patrol streets during next 'yellow vest' protest
Photo: AFP
The participation of the anti-terror soldiers simply “relieves the police and gendarmes of a number of common tasks in the fight against terrorism,” said Parly. “It's about allowing them to do what they are the only ones who can do: maintain public order.” 
Former Defence Minister, and the current French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday: “There was never any question that the French army would intervene. It's not their role to get in touch with the protesters.”
Le Drian added that this is “not the first time” the military have been brought in to help the police, saying that this measure was also taken during the Euros in 2016 “when soldiers replaced the police force to provide security in a number of buildings, such as embassies and places of worship.” 

What are the 'yellow vests' planning?

However the measures introduced by the French government hasn't stopped a flurry of 'yellow vest' events, including one called 'War is declared', being set up on Facebook. 
There are events planned at several cities across France, including in the French capital, on Saturday. 
Two Facebook groups call on members of the movement to meet at Trocadéro in the 16th arrondissement, with some of them planning to stage a sit-in there.
Due to the restrictions placed on protesters in other cities around France (see above for more information), demonstrations have been planned outside of the spaces they have been banned from. 
For example in Nice, 'yellow vests' are planning to meet in Garibaldi Square, at Le Miroir d'eau in Bordeaux, in the allées Jean-Jaurès in Toulouse and Place de la Republique in Metz.
Other protests have been announced in the southern French city of Montpellier, Strasbourg in the east, Lyon in central France, La Rochelle in the south west and, perhaps more surprisingly, the town of Guéret also in the south west, where protesters are planning a “significant event”.
But not all Gilets Jaunes are planning to congregate in cities. 
Controversial 'yellow vest' Eric Drouet, who is keen to mix up the approach, is calling for a “total national block” which he intends to do by blocking ports and oil refineries. 
However true to their tradition, the 'yellow vests' have not revealed the details of this action in an attempt to take the authorities by surprise in the face of the government's new strategy. 

Member comments

  1. The fine for taking part in a banned demonstration has also been increased from €38 to €135 …
    how do they plan to collect this money given that the protesters are complaining they are already living paycheck to paycheck … if ANY paycheck?

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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.”