‘Yellow Vests’ and the Wages of Violence

The French government's repressive strategy deterred many pacific Gilets Jaunes from joining the protests in Paris. But not all of them succumbed to the pressure.

This is the second article in a two-part series on the Yellow Vest protests. Read the first part here.

Paris: Since the morning, black smoke has been rising in column from the burning debris on the Champs-Elysées. For the ‘Acte II’ of their mobilisation, on November 24, thousands of Gilets Jaunes protesters have once again converged on Paris’s most renowned avenue to press their demands. The most determined sections of the movement have set up barricades made of works barriers and street furniture, before setting them on fire. Far from being deterred by the blaze, some elderly Gilets Jaunes literally fuel the fire by casually adding a chunk of wood to the burning barricades as they pass beside them. Meanwhile, younger protesters pose in front of the flames for a selfie. Referring to the imposing structure in the background, partly veiled behind a thick smokescreen, one of them defiantly claims: “Now the Arc de Triomphe looks beautiful!”

Gilets Jaunes protesters place de l’Etoile, near the Champs-Elysées. Paris, November 24, 2018.

Since the inception of the movement on November 17, a violent interaction was set in motion between some components of the Gilets Jaunes and the police – despite mostly cordial relations on the ronds-points. Simultaneously asking for the cancellation of a proposed raise of the ‘carbon tax’, an increase of the purchasing power of low-income households and the resignation of President Macron, some participants of the movement decided to gather in Paris on November 17. The anti-institutional streak of the movement, which refused to be ‘recuperated’ by political parties and trade unions, led participants to regroup unofficially outside the usual routes for such demonstrations.

Also read: Debate: The ‘Gilets Jaunes’ Movement is not a Facebook Revolution

The Champs-Elysées are not a traditional venue for protest rallies and are more associated with public performances showcasing the might and awe of the French state, as well as the achievements of its nation – this is where the yearly military parade on Bastille Day is taking place – but also where a jubilant crowd congregated last summer after the victory of the national football team at the FIFA World Cup. Besides, the avenue is located near the presidential palace and other seats of power, which the Gilets Jaunes aimed to reach so as to convey their message directly to the President. Unsurprisingly, state authorities were determined not to let that happen and, if the government avoided proscribing these unauthorised gatherings, a large number of police personnel was deployed in the area to contain the Gilets Jaunes.

Clashes between the riot police and a group of Gilets Jaunes near the Champs-Elysées. Paris, November 24, 2018.

From November 17 onwards, clashes between the police, the Gilets Jaunes and various groups of rioters (including far-right and far-left activists, as well as some opportunistic looters) started occurring on the Champs-Elysées and their surroundings on a weekly basis. Every Saturday, these upscale neighbourhoods witnessed violent incidents, which culminated on December 1. On that day, thousands of highly mobile rioters outflanked the police and wrought havoc over the 8th and 16th arrondissements. For the first time in Paris’s long history of popular uprisings, barricades were set up in the streets and avenues of these upper class neighbourhoods.

These barricades were essentially symbolic: since 1848, the barricade has lost its military value in the city, as a result of the asymmetrical power relationship between the state and rioters. However symbolic, this return of the barricades and the number of cars set on fire in Paris on that day (112, including two police vehicles) has struck the imagination of the public and the political class. Meanwhile, similar uprisings erupted in a number of cities across the country, including the major urban centres of Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nantes.

A passer-by being evacuated from the Champs-Elysées after a tear-gas strike, November 24, 2018. Since the beginning of the protests, 2891 people were wounded, including 1843 ‘civilians’. Out of the 10 people who lost their lives during the movement, only one was killed during clashes between the police and the Gilets Jaunes – an elderly woman, who was fatally hurt by a tear gas canister in Marseille.

Following these episodes of civil strife, the government decided to put all its forces in the battle on December 8, by mobilising 89,000 policemen across the country, while deploying armoured vehicles of the Gendarmerie in Paris and other major cities. In the previous days, home minister Christophe Castaner also adopted an alarmist communication strategy, claiming that thousands of troublemakers were converging on the capital to ‘kill and destroy’. On December 8 itself, 1,500 persons were arrested across the country after being accused of regrouping ‘in view of preparation’ of public disturbances.

This repressive strategy deterred many pacific Gilets Jaunes from joining the protests in Paris. Women, in particular, came in much fewer numbers. Not all of them succumbed to the pressure, though. Sophie, an Alsatian nurse in her forties, joined some of her new friends from the Rond-Point du Nouveau Monde to the Champs-Elysées, despite the apocalyptic predictions of the government. When we met in the early hours of December 8, she said she was determined to be home in the evening, preferably in one piece. “You see, she confided, I didn’t tell my mother and daughter where I was headed. I just said that I was on duty at the clinic.”

A Gilet Jaune protester taking a selfie in front of a burning barricade on the Champs-Elysées. Paris, November 24.

France is no stranger to clashes between demonstrators and the police. During the movement against the reform of labour laws (2016-2017), these violent interactions escalated significantly. While this movement was still led by left-wing trade unions, it witnessed the emergence of the cortège de tête (the head of the cortege), a loose coalition spearheading every demonstration, before the official cortege led by the labour unions, which has been responsible for most of the violence against the police and private property.

The episodes of rioting witnessed in Paris and other cities during the Gilets Jaunes movement differed from these outbursts of violence. There is no longer any cortège de tête because there is no longer any ‘head’ to the protests. The implosion of the demonstration, as a formal mode of protest, has only left mobile groups of protesters and rioters, for whom rioting has become an end in itself – an ephemeral proclamation of popular sovereignty which is not purely nihilistic as it feeds a sense of collective belonging and power among the participants.

The owner of a car set on fire by rioters crying out in anger and hurt. ‘It’s not us, it’s Macron!’, replied the young men. Paris, December 1, 2018.

The movement against the reform of labour laws also witnessed the development of new self-defence techniques among protesters. As the state systematically resorted to heavy tear-gas strikes at the slightest provocation, demonstrators started gearing up. Gas masks and swimming goggles, as well as physiological serum, became part of the routine kit of protesters. With the Gilets Jaunes, this protection gear was seriously upgraded. Factory and construction workers, in particular, brought professional equipment.

Martin, a 28-year-old temporary worker from Le Havre, explained how his company provided him with some high-quality gas masks: “I was sponsored by my job. My employers are Portuguese. They are highly supportive of the movement, saying that in Portugal it’s been at least three generations since they gave up on the project [of social justice], so we shouldn’t let that happen here. When I decided to come to Paris, I went to our storekeeper and he gave me a mask, [filtration] cartridges, everything.” This is how Martin headed to Paris with some high-grade protective equipment: “I work in a factory, so the stuff we’re exposed to is much more hardcore than their lacrymos [tear gas]. If the cops used that kind of gear, they’d be much better off.”

A young rioter proudly posing with the diplomatic plates of a car turned upside down by the crowd on the very posh avenue Raymond Poincaré. Paris, December 1, 2018.

Christmas came early for the Parisian riot police, though. After noticing that a good deal of protesters were getting immune to tear gas, the police strove to restore its tactical advantage by checking more thoroughly the bags of the Gilets Jaunes converging on the Champs-Elysées, leading Martin and many others to get their equipment confiscated by the men in blue on December 8.

Not only have the self-protection skills of protesters been upgraded during this new round of protests, they have also been imparted to a whole new set of men and women who had never joined a demonstration until then. But the real novelty, in the recent sequence of weekly riots witnessed across the country, has to do with the growing legitimacy of violent forms of protest targeting symbols of the bourgeoisie, capitalism, and the police.

Firemen trying to extinguish cars set on fire by rioters avenue Raymond Poincaré. Paris, December 1, 2018.

This is not to say that every Gilet Jaune condones violence and, a fortiori, would be ready to involve herself in violent actions. Every ‘Saturday riot’ I witnessed in Paris since November 17 saw self-declared ‘pacifist’ protesters or passers-by vocally express their dissent with the rioters. The use of violence remained controversial and, far from being a monolithic entity running amok, riotous crowds were riddled with multiple cleavages. Even in the midst of the riot, people conversed and occasionally heaped invectives at each other. And yet, I had never witnessed such a large number of demonstrators involving themselves, in one way or another, into this kind of violent performances.

While the most intense episodes of rioting had a pre-insurrectional air to them, the bonfires on the Champs-Elysées and surrounding neighbourhoods evoked a carnival – this joyful moment of inversion of ordinary norms and patterns of domination. The use of grotesque masks by some participants only added to this impression, by conjuring up a long history of ritualised subversions of social order.

Armored vehicles of the Gendarmerie in front of the Printemps Department Store. Paris, December 8, 2018.

On December 10, after three weeks of protests, President Macron announced a series of measures meant to appease the protesters, including a raise of 100 euros of the minimum wage and a tax reduction for pensioners receiving less than 2,000 euros a month, an announcement which followed the cancellation of the ‘carbon tax’ increase a few days earlier. While these measures failed to content many Gilets Jaunes, they (momentarily?) led the movement to subside. On Saturday December 15, the official number of protesters across the country fell to 66,000, against 126,000 on December 8 and 282,000 on November 17. On the Champs-Elysées, a few thousand Gilets Jaunes fought the bitter cold and tried to convince themselves that the movement would resume after Christmas and the New Year’s celebrations.

Most of those I talked to maintained an ambivalent position toward violence. While claiming to be pacifists themselves, they considered that it was only because of the pressure exerted on the government by the so-called ‘casseurs’ (smashers) that the government had finally backtracked, however cosmetic its concessions to the protesters. Jacques, the owner of a small company based in Cherbourg and manufacturing car accessories, even claimed to have heard a motor cop visiting their blockade tell him and his friends: “I’m not in favour of violence, but, sadly, it has to come down to that if you want change.”

A waiter at the terrace of a café with the riot police in the background. Rue de Bretagne, Paris, December 8, 2018.

In the weeks following President Macron’s televised address, most protesters were evicted from the ronds-points and only a few diehard Gilets Jaunes defended their bastions. As the relations with the police became more tense, many of them met with their first experience of state violence. In Sens, 100 km southeast of Paris, the last occupiers of the ‘Rond-point des Gaulois’ showed me videos of the intervention of the local police against their makeshift camp. A few dozen men and women of all ages were caught off guard. Unlike the more seasoned protesters I had met in Paris, these ‘Gauls’ were not the belligerent type. As the police resorted to an unprovoked tear-gas strike, a woman in the background can be heard saying, “Oh, boy, where is this going? I have to pick up my kids at school!”

Explainer: Who Are the ‘Yellow Vest’ Protestors of France?

Weeks later, those present at the roundabout were still trying to make sense of this episode of state violence, while seething with rage when watching for the umpteenth time the photographs of their companion wounded in the explosion of a sting-ball grenade.

A graffiti on a barricaded bank agency reads ‘Act like a primitive, anticipate like a strategist’, a quote from poet René Char (1907-1988). Paris, December 15, 2018.

The incident took place at another occupied rond-point, facing the local Auchan supermarket, following an even more aggressive intervention of the police. One of the last Gilet Jaune still standing on the roundabout was convinced, by now, that “the cops will hit everything that moves.” André, a retired worker formerly employed in a local packing plant, did not go as far as calling the episodes of civil strife that accompanied the movement in Paris a form of resistance to police brutality. Overall, however, he considered that they had been beneficial to the cause. “Violence brings dialogue,” he claimed.

His sister-in-law, also in her seventies, opined: “At least, now, the rulers are shit scared.”

All names have been changed.

All photos by Laurent Gayer.

Laurent Gayer is a research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI), Sciences Po, Paris