‘They smashed the window with fists. There’s blood on the glass’
Central Paris’s streets were once more a mess of tear gas, protesters and debris
The shattered window of Starbucks at Gare St Lazare in Paris, following a fourth week of protests against rising fuel prices. The police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse “yellow vest” activists. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Thousands of yellow vests gravitated towards the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe on Saturday morning, with much of the city quiet as a ghost town. In a pre-ordained ritual, shops that were perfectly safe the day before and the day after had to be protected with iron shutters or plywood fronting. Security forces organised the area like a football fan zone, with searches at entry points. When demonstrators and rioters were driven out by tear gas, noise grenades and rubber bullets, they regrouped elsewhere in the city in the style of flash mobs.
The first yellow vests I encountered had left home in eastern France at 5.30am “to show the countryside is coming to Paris”. They hoped to regroup at the Place de la République and were typical of the most disadvantaged protesters. Their demands were economic, not political.
Cars drove by hooting horns, to show solidarity, all except a Porsche, I noted. “We’re going to stick them with the wealth tax again!” said Erwan (33), a minimum-wage factory worker.
“Why aren’t there any rich people in the demonstrations?” asked Joelle (31), a stay-at-home mother. “The rich people look down on us.”
“We don’t hate rich people,” Erwan interjected. “It’s the injustice we hate, the difference between rich and poor.”
The violence that marked the last two marches, on December 1st and 8th, was unfortunate but necessary, Joelle said. “There has to be breakage. Otherwise no one pays attention.”
The next two groups, interviewed at random, were university-educated and politically motivated. Though they voted far-right and far-left in last year’s elections, they were united in hatred of the European Union.
“Europe is the symbol of all our problems,” said Jean-Luc Pujo (52), the president of a tiny movement called Penser la France. Pujo too had fled the tear gas. He wore a blue, white and red ribbon pinned to his chest.
Our conversation was interrupted by a loud boom from the direction of the Arc de Triomphe, a “noise bomb” intended to deafen and scatter demonstrators. “We are living through the same phenomenon as the US electorate who brought Trump to power,” Pujo continued. “It’s about reaffirming the sovereignty of the people.”
The day was rich in paradoxes. Pujo is a legal expert who defends the state in court cases, but he demands the dissolution of the National Assembly.
Pierre, a 26-year-old waiter and law student at the Sorbonne draped in a tricolour flag, told me he wants to become a police officer. But he was fleeing riot police, I noted. “They’re just doing their job,” Pierre replied. He was the first of several demonstrators to tell me that he wants a “popular referendum” or “citizen’s referendum” known as an RIP or RIC.
“This anger has been brewing 30 or 40 years,” Pierre said. “Macron is politically dead.”
I found an open cafe, Le Recrutement, packed with yellow vests. The head waiter grumbled over the movement in general and those who don’t pay their tab in particular. “Hotel occupancy is down 40 per cent, our turnover 75 per cent. I want to move to New York,” he said.
I found more yellow vests, who had managed to smuggle gas masks and goggles into the restricted zone, on the Place François 1er. They had the fit, angry look of casseurs or anarchist vandals. Black smoke billowed from a burning car. A helicopter flew low overhead.
A young man who refused to tell me anything about himself said he wanted a “citizen’s referendum”. He doesn’t vote, he said, quoting the late comedian Coluche: “If voting could change things, it would have been banned a long time ago.”
Newspapers reported at the weekend that French intelligence is investigating allegations of Russian intervention through social media in the French crisis.
“On Monday, Emmanuel Macron is going to put France under UN rule,” the agitated young man with the gas mask told me, echoing a rumour spread by a Facebook page belonging to a yellow vest known as “Fly Rider”. “The Rothschilds [bankers] own the UN and Macron venerates them more than his own father, so he’ll sign the pact.”
The Marrakesh pact is in fact a non-binding commitment to respect international laws on migration. “Fly Rider” also predicts that Macron will use the French army to impose a state of emergency, and call in the [non-existent] European army if French military refuse.
Like the May 1968 revolution, this rebellion is not without humour. “The people want Dior,” said graffiti on the boarded-up designer boutique on the avenue Montaigne. The black-painted “A” in “J’Adore Dior” was the circle A of anarchists. Over in the rue Cambon, “The scent of victory” was scrawled outside Chanel. “The planet is burning. The Élysée’s next” was another phrase.
Alternating tear gas and rain showers drove waves of yellow vests from the Champs-Élysées at sunset. I followed them to the left bank, where a fire burned on the quai d’Orsay. The glass bus shelter on the avenue de Latour Maubourg was shattered.
Back at the café Le Recrutement, the plate glass window had been smashed in. An 18-year-old youth, hit in the back by a police rubber bullet, was being loaded into an ambulance. Police frisked yellow vests lined up with their hands against a wall.
“We’re not terrorists,” two yellow vests pleaded, trying to talk their way into the vandalised cafe. “We’re evacuating everyone,” said the head waiter.
“A swarm of them came, from the suburbs, wearing ski masks,” the barman said. “They smashed the window with their fists. There’s blood on the glass.”
There were more shattered car and shop windows down the rue Saint Dominique. By miracle, I found an apricot tart in a pâtisserie. “Weren’t you afraid to stay open?” I asked the saleswoman. “We pulled down the blinds when they came by,” she said. “Look: my hands are still shaking.”
A friend arrived late for dinner. “It was chaos out there,” she said. “I passed two burning cars and a shoe shop being looted.”
Such is Paris life this holiday season.