Eyewitness to an uprising: On the streets with the Yellow Vests

Those who seek to change the world should welcome the uprising with open arms and take notes from its defiance and success.

Photo of yellow vest protestors in foreground with historical art, Delacroix's 'La Liberté Guidant le Peuple'

Shit, they’ve closed Bercy. I stumble off onto an unknown metro station in the cold, bleak Parisian morning. No map, no wifi, but I swear to god, the French authorities will not stop me getting to this protest. Not for the first time this week, I silently thank my former self for taking high school French seriously. ‘Just down the street. 600 metres. Have fun and be safe yes?’ The station master offers me directions with a warm grin.

One, two, six… a dozen police vans filled with armoured thugs lines the pavement. Ahead, a roadblock. Not the easy stroll I had hoped for. Ten riot police hold the fort, they seem overdressed for 8 am on a Saturday. A few fellow pedestrians ask for directions, they receive stern grunts in response.

Thirty minutes later, I find the gilets jaunes. Hundreds of them, milling around in the square, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, chatting to one another. It’s a lovely sight – people gathering in the quintessentially French tradition of protest and political expression. Almost all the protestors have inscribed their vests with unique verses of resistance. Some carry Roman numerals to mark their loyal weekly participation in the uprising, while others call for Macron’s resignation, a rise in the minimum wage and an end to corporate tax evasion amongst other demands. Many abhor the violence of the police and their leader, Christophe Castaner, the interior minister.

The people also carry slogans rejecting the propaganda that slanders their movement – “fières et deters, femmes précaires, femmes en guerre,” – fierce and determined, precarious women, women at war. I don’t often take the mainstream press too seriously, but perhaps subconsciously I had absorbed the idea that the protesters were dangerous, that they were sexists, even covert supporters of Marine Le Pen. As I peer on my tiptoes looking for my friend, I catch myself somewhat surprised at the kettle of yellow bubbling before me and make a mental note to ignore the opinions of Le Monde journalists in future.

Emmanuel Macron is clearly le plat du jour here. The detested French president, whose popular approval has sunk to record lows, just diagnosed the problem in France as too many people who don’t know the meaning of hard work. And have they tried eating cake? Despite appearing to  making concessions in December, Macron’s overwhelming response to the Yellow Vest movement has been intense police violence. It’s been somewhat effective, many are afraid to come to the protests for fear of violence and the media can continue to paint the participants as villains. However,  the brutality has also fed the anger of the revolt. Last week a video of a former professional boxer beating back an armed officer with just his fists went viral after he and his family were teargassed. Today, many carry his name, “Liberez Christophe!”. Everyone wishes they could knock ’em down like Christophe.

The people here want change, but they call it by different names. Some carry anti-EU flags, in protest of its neoliberal, anti-democratic nature. Many others call for the RIC, a new form of democratic process, which they believe will allow them to take back the power through better-informed structures But most overwhelmingly, the gilets jaunes call for the end of the rule of the rich, and more for the French lower classes. They demand corporations pay their taxes, a substantial rise in the minimum wage, no taxes on low-income earners and, most importantly, down with Macron – the ruler for the rich and powerful.

I strike up a conversation with a woman handing out stickers. She’s from the NPA, a Trotskyist, anti-capitalist organisation, and notably part of the only organised political force I can see here. ‘Where are the CGT?’, I ask, shaking my head because I already know the answer. Even after 10 weeks of consistently mobilising thousands of people to march against the government, the French trade unions, traditional organs of struggle, are nowhere to be seen. She sighs, “the unions still aren’t on board. The CGT speak sometimes in favour of the protests but refuse to call for action. It’s a stupid mistake because their members are here, their members support the movement. But the leaders, they want to make deals with the government and keep their seat at the table. They think you win by being respectable. And in the eyes of the world, this is not respectable. But this (she gestures to the crowd) is how we can win something. It’s tragic, really”.

After milling around for what feels like too long, the people begin to move. Nobody knows where we’re going or when to start, or even someone who might. We turn into a tunnel and fill it quickly in our thousands. In the tunnel, together, our voices join and strengthen. We all sing – old men, young women, black, white and brown. The most popular chant, and the easiest for me – ‘tous ensemble, tous ensemble eh eh!’ – all together! The NPA crowd adjust it slightly – ‘tous ensemble tous ensemble, grève générale!’ – general strike! Emerging from the tunnel I hear a trumpet start. A brass band have come along and are playing a classic anti-fascist song – Bella Ciao. People dance, clap and sing along, our breath floating like clouds in a sea of yellow.

Chatting between bites of baguette and chants, my friend Oscar and I try to decipher the different symbols and insignias as we march; a flag of Brittany, various French manifestos (handwritten on cardboard), vests, flags, and numbers, 77, 89, on vests (perhaps far-right codes?). Innumerable tricolour flags wave in the breeze. It seems many gilets jaunes believe they stand in the supposedly true French tradition, of revolution and liberty. I can’t help but wince at the nationalism, but it’s far from the far right presence I was expecting.

Our English chatter attracts attention. People stop to ask where we are from and welcome us to the revolution. A couple approaches us and are thrilled to hear our accents – they lived in Brisbane for a few years and miss the beaches. The woman introduces herself as “Marine, but not like the evil one”. They talk with us for hours about the ins and outs of the yellow vests, their views on the parties, what should happen next and the supposed concessions so far.

The left is deeply discredited both in this march and France more broadly here. Beyond the abstention of the unions, the recent history of the French socialist party is not easily forgotten. Before Macron came to power in 2016, the similarly despised Hollande also tried to ram through detested neoliberal reforms. Originally, many invested great hopes in Hollande and saw him as a Corbyn-esque social democrat. Indeed, Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century, wrote a reflection on the 2012 election entitled ‘Will François Hollande be remembered as the Franklin Roosevelt of Europe?’. It was not to be. Hollande succeeded in pushing through the massive expansion of the police state and reforms to the labour code, the latter through dictatorial powers of presidential decree. Whilst the socialists aren’t popular, the right is far from guiding the movement.

Marine spells it out to me, “Gilet Jaunes is not left or right. We tried both, and look what it gave us. More than anything we are angry.”

She’s not wrong. A poll released by France 2 TV found 33 per cent of Yellow Vest protesters said they were neither left nor right. Some 15 per cent described themselves as extreme left and 5.4 per cent said far right. Here in Paris, members of Groupe Union Defense, a far-right student group, have been pushed out from Yellow Vest events after chanting racist, sexist and homophobic slogans. Such an assortment of political opinion is inevitable given the organic nature of the uprising, but there are many internal battles being waged for its future.

The lack of involvement of political forces that have capacity beyond spontaneity is clear to all. No more so than at the end of the march, where we find ourselves 5 hours later, at the famous Arc du Triomphe, an enormous traffic interchange and the site the yellow vests have fought to reach week after week. So what happens now? We wait for a sign, as numbers slowly dwindle. After such a long march, Oscar and I choose to dip into a McDonald’s, hoping to catch up with our new friends later.

As we wait for our fries, dozens of people start to run past the window, chased by clouds of rolling, rising tear gas. I stand by the window, filming until someone pulls me away – the police just smashed the glass door, it’s better to stand back. I wonder where Marine and her partner are, where the American academic got to, or any of the smiling faces we met. The McDonald’s begins to fill with gas. Children are crying, holding their faces up to their mothers, who wipe their eyes and noses and mouths with water and ice. Outside, the riot police move in lines, head to toe in black armour and matching masks, as if to imply their prey are the real threat. They begin to move past the window in formation, through the gas clouds, to the Arc. Behind them, a water cannon pulls up. We watch from the top floor window and for hours the two sides battle. At times it seems the yellow are pushing back, armed with nothing but fists and fireworks. I feel like I’m watching an invasion from on high, cheering the supposed barbarians. We stand in the road to watch for a while, until our eyes are too stung and necks too sore from trying to catch a glimpse. Back to the metro, where five stations are now closed and hushed voices talk hurriedly of yellow disturbances.

Across the world, the parties of the establishment are failing to provide an alternative to a system in crisis. Our illusions in them can’t wear much thinner. Even in Australia, sheltered from the economic crisis that has wreaked havoc elsewhere, Labor and Liberal chase each other to be the better friends of big business and worst enemies of refugees and the climate. The failures and sell outs of social democracy has meant this anger has lingered and grown cancerous in places, fuelling a catastrophic reemergence of the far right. But in Paris, I saw how crisis can breed resistance and an alternative. The Yellow Vest movement is an outpouring of this energy; unbound by institutions, but unsure of direction, and uneasy about politics. Those who seek to change the world should welcome the uprising with open arms and take notes from its defiance and success.