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What I Saw at a Yellow Vest Protest in France

Tear gas, anger over the cost of living—the demonstrations that rocked Paris are still going strong.
Yellow vests

ROUEN, FRANCE – A large plastic garbage can ignites with a whoosh in front of the Church of Saint Joan of Arc in Rouen, Normandy. The smell of acrid plastic and waste fills the air, mixed with the odor of tear gas and pepper spray.

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake here in 1431; now this site and much of downtown Rouen is beset by furious protesters demanding the ouster of President Emmanuel Macron, lighting fires in the streets and hurling insults. “Your grandmother was a whore!” shouts one young man in his 20s, shaking his fist at a long line of police standing across the avenue in full riot gear.

His compatriots bellow in encouragement as hundreds of yellow vests of all ages—majority male—stream down the street, jumping over fencing and chanting in solidarity. They throw boards on a burning pyre by a barricade nearby, keeping a watchful eye on the advancing police and scrambling in retreat as a sudden hail of tear gas grenades clatter down around them. The projectiles make sounds like giant ping pong balls before exploding at extremely high volume.

Estimates hold that around 32,000 yellow vests marched on January 12 throughout France, including a full 8,000 in Paris, up some 6,000 from turnout estimates last Saturday. In Rouen, there were 3,500 yellow vests taking part. In total, 80,000 police were deployed Saturday to meet the protesters. Although the numbers of yellow vests have been waning overall since the uprising started last November following a fuel tax hike, enthusiasm appeared strong and aggression was not lacking.

Police chatted and joked amongst themselves as they prepared to run on the protesters with riot shields. On the other side, yellow vests shouted tips as they walked briskly. Some had scrawled messages on the back of their hi-vis vests: “Macron out,” read one; “No to Macron’s Rothschild France!” read another.

Macron has hinted at vague reforms to satiate the angry sentiments across his country. But the dislike of him by the yellow vests was still visceral, as was a consensus that he has failed on his promises and “done nothing” since his election. A new yellow vest song made by a supporter is gaining ground. It is directly aimed at Macron and has lyrics that say “Emmanuel Macron you are a c*nt! We will go into your house and throw you out!”

Despite ending the fuel tax, increasing the minimum wage by 100 Euros per month, lifting tax on overtime wages, and upping some welfare benefits, Macron has been hounded from all sides by a rising and vehement opposition. Yellow vest Angelique Loulou, participating Saturday in Rouen, told The American Conservative that she works two jobs and still barely has enough to get by. Her two children in their 20s are also having a hard time in the current economy. She blames Macron and the government as a whole, saying with a laugh that they can “kiss my ass.” Tof Lemon, who accompanied her, said they had met only half an hour before and that he too shares frustrations with the current political situation. Neither he nor Loulou said who they would like to see come after Macron, but both were upset by austerity policies and the conviction that elites like Macron are out of touch liars.

Another yellow vest, Antonie, who wished not to provide his surname, told TAC that he is apolitical but disgusted by Macron. He sees France’s government as fused with big business interests, leaving its people behind. “I’ve been involved in the protests from the very beginning,” Antonie said. “Macron has pursued a policy of austerity and big banks are getting all the advantages. It’s becoming a totalitarian regime.”

This Saturday was the ninth round of protests, and French Interior Minister Laurent Nunez, speaking in Rouen Saturday, said police are going to have “an extremely firm response” if the yellow vests commit any “excesses.” A crackdown on the wearing of masks during demonstrations is also expected, according to French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. Left-wing French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon has strongly opposed the measure, saying it amounts to quashing the right to protest. But French Senator Bruno Retailleau said it was a good measure and demonstrators wearing hoods or masks should be “severely punished.” So far, 11 have been killed in incidents related to the protests and over 1,400 injured, some seriously. Yellow vests complain about police brutality, while police and detractors cast the rioters as irresponsible hooligans with no clear goal.

The owner of a chocolaterie near Joanne of Arc Church said she doesn’t like when protesters break windows or cause damage, which is hard to clean up and expensive, though she noted that her store has not been damaged. Another man looking at the march, who declined to give his name, said he did not support the yellow vests. “I work,” he said. “They break things.”

Nonetheless, a poll from Elabe finds that 60 percent sympathize with the protesters’ grievances, and plenty of bystanders were more supportive. Ben Les of Rouen said he empathizes with the yellow vests position and does not see their protests ending anytime soon. “They have nothing to lose,” he told TAC.

Antoine Souali, 33, who owns a bar on Rue du Général LeClerc in downtown Rouen, also expressed some support for the yellow vests. “Most people work but at the end of the month they have nothing,” he said. “In France there’s a lot of taxes. We have good social security but the services are declining because the government puts the interest of the rich above the normal people and close hospitals and schools.” Souali added that while he sympathizes with the frustrations of the yellow vests, his bar has had its business negatively affected by the protests.

Souali said he leans right in some ways but is overall moderate and feels that the left and right wings in France, including the socialists and the National Rally (formerly Marine Le Pen’s National Front), do not have concrete plans or effective policies that can address the country’s problems. While he does not support the National Rally, Souali nonetheless believes they will dominate the European elections this May, swinging the balance of power away from Macron. He also thinks it is possible that the current administration will be dissolved prior to the EU elections.

France is not set for national elections until 2022, and Macron’s party, the Republique En Marche!, currently has a big majority in the 577-seat French parliament. So it will be difficult to successfully table a no-confidence motion to remove his government. Impeachment is highly unlikely. Macron will launch national debates next week and visit a town about 20 kilometers away from Rouen to talk with the mayor about how to address the disorder. They also plan to draft legislation, including a possible referendum.

In a very uncertain political and social climate, one thing is certain: France is once again the scene of a great drama that will help define the future of Western civilization. The amorphous and populist nature of the protests make them hard to contain—and to authoritatively explain as born of one main cause. But the high cost of living and the perception of a distant, uncaring elite clearly rank highly as motivating factors.

“Tell the world what is happening in France!” a young man exhorts me as he bounds down the street amid a throng of yellow vests in ski masks and hoods. He raises his fist as he passes by and begins singing at the top of his lungs, joined by a swelling chorus.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.



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