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‘Black Saturday’: Why France fears major violence at ‘yellow vest’ protests

The 'yellow vests' are planning to gather for another weekend of protests in France this weekend. While recent demos have been largely peaceful police the government is concerned violence will break out in Paris on Saturday given the notorious"black bloc" look set to infiltrate the protest.

'Black Saturday': Why France fears major violence at 'yellow vest' protests
Photo: AFP
For a while it seemed like the Notre-Dame blaze which shook France on Monday, had dampened the 'yellow vests' plans to go big for this weekend's demonstrations.
And while some members of the anti-government movement are suggesting that the events should be cancelled, on Friday it seemed like there was a growing call for the protests to go ahead, with many Gilets Jaunes angered by the large sums coughed up for the repairs at Notre-Dame, which they say could be better spent. 
On top of that the notorious Black Bloc group (Scroll down to find out more about the black bloc), who played a major role when the Champs-Elysées was ransacked recently, have also called on their supporters to join the protests, with the French capital set to be the centre of the action once again.  
A total of 5,600 people are planning to attend one event called “Ultimatum 2” in Paris, according to the Facebook page. 

OPINION: Notre-Dame blaze has united France - but probably only until the weekendPhoto: AFP

Organisers of this event struck an aggressive note, stating: “We are calling on all our citizens to go to Paris in a non-peaceful way… As for Notre-Dame, it's good billionaires have found one billion euros, but 140,000 homeless, no one cares!”
Another group called “Acte 23 Ultimatum 2: RDV A L'elysee!“, was similar in tone: “The meeting point will be on the Champs Elysee and it will end at the Elysee, we must NOT separate!” 
The organisers of other event pages also seemed determined to carry out their plans to protest. 
“We must find an honorable way to do it with our sadness, to unite with the national turmoil, while remaining vindictive towards Macron,” read the description of one of the demonstrations being planned for this Saturday.
This event calls on demonstrators to meet at the Basilica of Saint-Denis and head to Notre-Dame, however just a few hundred people so far have said they plan to participate while 2,400 are “interested”. 
“You have to demonstrate April 20th as planned regardless of what happened elsewhere. There is still no way to make ends meet,” wrote one 'yellow vest' on the event page. 
The main figures of the movement, including Jerome Rodrigues and Eric Drouet, have made it clear they plan to protest this weekend, with Drouet warning the government in a video on Monday that this was a second ultimatum for the government and that they should prepare. 
Meawhile Jerome Rodrigues said: “The Yellow Vests thank all the generous donor billionaires for saving Notre-Dame and suggest that they do the same with Les Miserables.” 
Photo: AFP
At the time of writing on Friday, it was still not clear exactly what the main plan for protest is. 
One reason for this could be that protests will once again be banned on the Champs-Elysees, and it will also be banned to protest throughout the Ile de la Cité where Notre-Dame is located. 
On top of that, since the beginning of the protests it has been forbidden to demonstrate near the National Assembly and the Senate.
This will be the second time a 'yellow vest' act has taken place since the so-called 'anti-rioters' bill came into effect on April 11th, and the bill, which was approved by lawmakers in February, aims to crack down on violence that has marred the “yellow vest” protest movement.
This means in theory that anyone turning up to an undeclared demo will be fined 135 euros.
Police presence 
The Paris police are on red alert for this weekend, with the Prefect of police Didier Lallement warning that there could be around 10,000 to 15,000 protesters, with a radical contingent of 1,500 – 2,000.
Lallement said on a Friday that one single demonstration had been authorised for Saturday — the one leaving the Basilica of Saint Denis. 

However he said that two other “problematic” demonstrations, which were to end on the Champs-Elysées or head to the quays near Notre-Dame, were banned and asked organisers to change their plans.
He also said that police would intervene as soon as there was any “destruction” and that “mobs” will be dispersed.
Thorough checks are set to take place around the railway stations, at the tolls and on all the roads around the greater Paris region of Ile-de-France to identify individuals who are banned from demonstrating or going to Paris, as well as to find possible weapons. Customs services will also be involved.
Photo: AFP
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced that 60,000 police would be deployed throughout France on Saturday. 
In Paris, 20 companies of CRS riot police will be mobilised, as well as 36 squadrons of gendarmes compared to just 12 last weekend. 
In total, some 5,000 police and gendarmes will be deployed in the capital, a figure which compares to the numbers deployed during the most violent 'yellow vest' protests, with the Interior Ministry also planning back-up in case the situation takes a turn for the worse. 

At the end of the 22nd day of mobilization on April 13th, Castaner, warned: “The threat seems greater for April 20th”, adding that there were “calls almost inviting people to destroy Paris”.
While the French capital does seem to be the focus for this weekend, other cities in France are also taking precautions. 
In Toulouse, it will be banned to carry hunting weapons without a legitimate motive, as well as to transport and use dangerous, flammable or chemical products.
Meanwhile in Bordeaux, the centre will be banned to the protesters, and precautions will also be taken in Montpellier.
There are also 'yellow vest' events planned for Lille and Lyon .
Who are the Black Bloc?
“Black bloc” protesters fall on the extreme left of the political spectrum and regularly clash with police at demonstrations around the world. They are also described as anti-capitalists, anti-globalization, anarchists and anti-fascists.
During demonstrations individuals dressed in black, mask their faces, then meet to create “a kind of huge black flag made up of human beings”, political scientist Francis Dupuis-Déri, who has written a book on the subject, told FranceInfo.
“They thus form a compact block allowing everyone to remain anonymous” and making it very difficult to arrest them. 
On Saturday March 16th — when the Black Blocs were last involved in the protests — dozens of luxury stores attacked and kiosks burned.
Their aim is to target signs of “capitalist oppression” such as banks, chain stories advertising panels and designer stores, without leaving civilian victims. Although that is not always the case given they recently set fire to a bank near the Champs-Elysées where families were living above and had to be evacuated.
They also target the police with violence.

Member comments

  1. I think it’s high time that we stopped identifying these people as ‘gilets jaunes’ and called them what they really are – radical extremists who just want to create mayhem and destruction at no cost to themselves.
    Tolerance with protests in France is embedded in the French psyche, but this goes way beyond that.
    It’s time for the authorities to stop worrying about the social politics and deal with this dangerous uprising before innocent residents / bystanders get killed or maimed; then President Macron really would have something to worry about!

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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.”