It was mid-November 2018 that marked the first Saturday that the Gilets Jaunes made their first appearance on the scene.
For the week or two leading up to their first protest (which the French refer to as a manifestation), we would spot more and more bright yellow vests folded and sitting up on the passenger side of the dashboard in more and more cars. My friend and I had noticed them when we were walking to school and the next day, my french teacher warned me that there was going to be a big protest the next day; lots of people were planning to come to our square here in the middle of the city, wearing their vests in protest to the upcoming tax increases on fuel. Enough, she said. People have had enough. “J’en ai marre”! walls would be spraypainted…”Ras le bol”! Signs would read. Phrases which mean “We have had enough! We are done!” For so many reasons which are blamed on poor decision making by their government, as well as resistance to change, people have had enough of trying to make ends meet. Enough of working at the same jobs but never seeing pay raises. Recently, the government abolished the wealthy tax. This, along with the imminent tax increase on fuel to start 1 January 2019 is the final straw for many who live in more affordable rural areas and are forced to drive long distances to their jobs.
For my friend, Marie-Sophie who has a farmhouse down in Lagard- Hachan- a tiny village surrounded by kilometers and kilometers of beautiful farmland, it is difficult to watch her neighbors struggle to afford to fill their tanks up with gas so that they can drive to (one of a limited few) jobs a distance away.
The initial Gilets Jaunes movement started as a protest to this imminent fuel tax increase January 1. Macron had implemented this tax increase as part of his “environmental agenda” in an order to slowly wean citizens off fossil fuels (cars in France are still heavily fueled by diesel; terrible for the environment) and towards cleaner energy sources, an increasingly urgent issue with what we now know about global warming and how quickly it is happening. We have recently been told that globally, leaders must mandate changes NOW, within the next several months to slow this process. So, I can understand where Macron is coming from in that respect. The whole thing is so complicated!
Living one block from the city center as we do, we have a direct view out onto the city square and the prefecture (the city hall), both are common gathering spots for strikes (“grèves”in French) which happen at least a few times a month, it seems. So the first day, there were horns, motorcycles riding through the city center, people yelling/cheering and lots of signs everywhere, but things were peaceful. There were thousands of people out in the cold rain to express their discontent. There was a call for everyone to boycott shopping. There were lots of people standing in front of stores and heckling people for entering the malls, etc. They parked their cars freely in the streets and there were lots of streets blocked, especially the major autoroutes by GJs either parked horizontally across the highway or all in a trail of cars together driving very slow, backing up traffic. They were a nuissance for sure, but still it didn’t feel angry, violent. These were older people who were fighting to keep the retirement savings they worked years to earn. Teachers who were working all day everyday with low pay and no pay increase after years of the same. Shift workers who had to drive an hour to work and spend a good chunk of their paychecks on gas to get them there. And many others. In total, there were over 250,000 people who came out that day all over France to show their frustration.
After that first Saturday, over the next few weeks, there were news reports of tensions building, GJs in other areas of France whose demonstrations were becoming more destructive- setting bonfires, taking over toll booths, breaking the barriers to allow cars through without paying. They were camping out and blocking roundabouts, giant traffic circles through which may cars can over through quickly and off into several directions without needing to stop at a traffic light or giant intersection.
We noticed our parking meters near our building were blocked; someone had used spray foam to seal off the card reader and the coin slots so that it was impossible to pay.
Tollbooths on the highways had been taken over by GJ’s who had opened them up for everyone to pass through.
There are, of course, many other issues that have infuriated the French for years. Early on in the first few weeks, Macron decided to suspend the fuel tax increase, but by then, the GJs had momentum and refused to back down. What started as a protest to fuel price increases launched into an overall protest against Macron himself and his policies. Some were even calling for him to resign. Songwriters were even writing songs about him resigning! I don’t think I realized initially just how unpopular he is among the French citizens. My French teachers and friends all tell me that he only received 30% of the popular vote 18 months ago when he was elected. It seems complicated to understand how he ended up as the leader of France anyhow.
Several weeks after the begninning of the GJ movement, an individual or two surfaced as the “leader”, which they didn’t have initially when the movement started, but after some organizations, they released a list of 40 items they are demanding that the government address ASAP.
Among these include:
- lower fuel prices/lower fuel taxes
- transitioning from carbon fuels to cleaner sources
- higher taxes for wealthy, lower taxes for working class
- (minimum)wage increases
- an urgent end to homeless
- equal social security for all
- rights for asylum-seekers
- reduction in class sizes (kindergarten-high school)
- and many others!
Many of the “bigger” towns and cities in France are “under construction” with detours everywhere, which limits access to small merchants. They are pouring money into building big parking garages and many small business owners are being forced to close, etc.
I asked my French teacher if she was concerned. Tensions were rising everywhere around us it felt like.
She admitted that for a country that loves to protest everything all the time, that there had never been a call to action like this during her lifetime and that no one could really guess what would happen. But one thing everyone knows for sure. The current state of things- regulations, taxes, are unsustainable in the eyes of the French. They can’t afford to live and maintain a reasonable quality of life.
Last week was the first week that I felt fear.
With each weekend that approaches, a new “Act” is promised by the Gilet Jaune movement. The news was predicting even more violence and uprising in Paris, “Act IV”, as the previous 3 weekends had seen. The weekend before last saw riots unseen in decades- defacing historic sites such as the Arc de Triomphe and other monuments, torching cars, smashing windows to storefronts, etc. Police were forced to use tear gas for crowd control, a few hundred were injured, 400 were arrested.
As an American, it’s been relatively easy up until now to “look the other way” so to speak, to feel that since we aren’t French citizens, that these issues don’t directly affect us, our future, our livelihoods etc. And honestly with the trying to make sense of what’s going on, reading the news, all the abbreviations of all the agencies, the details about Macron’s policies, all in French… It has seemed too complicated to really delve into.
But this week was different. Mid-way through the week, the lycéens (high-school students) all over France coordinated walk-outs and protests against recent changes Macron had made to “the Bac”, the baccalaureate exam, a college entrance exam that is a strong determinant in access to jobs, etc. It remains very difficult for people to find jobs after they graduate college.
I started noticing a trashcan here and there smoldering recently burned to the ground; One right outside of Charlie’s school.
Things escalated to the point where a few days there were big protests of high school students, marching in the streets, swinging bats, defacing property and rioting.
The schools had to lock the entry gates and doors, the kids weren’t allowed to leave.
At a few different points over those few days, the kids had to practice “invasion” type drills, sitting in dark rooms, huddled together. There were smoke bombs thrown over the school gates from the outside. Unfortunately, the world-wide opportunist group known as the”Casseurs” (“caisser” means “to break”) that operate with violence as their MO had shown up in Clermont and latched onto this particular demonstration and were hanging around the area of schools where Charlie’s middle/high school is.
Many parents, including us, kept our children home at the end of the week in order to keep them safe.
After a few weeks of violence and destruction in Paris, Macron was forced to acknowledge that unless he make changes, that things would likely continue to escalate. He apologized and accepted blame for the events in the previous few weeks. He declared an economic and social state of emergency. He quickly announced reforms that increase salaries, including the addition of an end-of-the-year bonus and an increase in the minimum wage. If only this was enough.
As I added to this post over the first several months, things with the Gilets Jaunes continued and Saturday protests became our new “normal”. At times, there was violence and defacement of property but for the most part it was just annoying honking and marching in the streets, and the protests started later and later as the months went on. Eventually, they started protesting at night and seemed to be mostly drunk men. One Saturday night, I looked outside and saw a man in a yellow vest peeing in the street! The biggest and most destructive protest was on a weekend in April of 2019, fortunately, we were out of town (see post on Cypress).
Update: May 1, 2020: Many months later, I circle back to finish this post….
Fall and winter of 2019 were marked by strikes every single week.
The yellow vests seemed to be disappearing but there were more strikes that resulted in school closures. The schools were open, but the boys would have one or just a few classes. It seemed like the entire fall, Thursdays were marked by a day off from school. Some weeks it became Tuesdays. Teachers wouldn’t show up, or maybe just one. If we were lucky, they would post online that they weren’t going to come, but sometimes the boys wouldn’t find out until they were at school! I remember one day where Charlie had just one class- from 4:00-6:00. For a few months, at least 1 or 2 days a week they just had a few classes, the rest of the day would be cancelled. It became even hard to mail a letter!
Public Transport would be closed. SNCF, the train system was often striking and it became very difficult for people to travel by train in France. Even the airlines were striking. The common theme between these strikes was a demand for retirement reform. The retirement age had been pushed back a bit, and many industries that were previously allowed retirement age in the early 50s (the railroad industry) were now being told that they would need to work a few more years. Retirement packages were shrinking. People were up in arms that they’d signed on to a certain package when they chose their career and were now being told somthing different after all these years.
It seemed like a few days a week people were marching in the streets, protesting outside our building.
Walking home for lunch from school meant having to weave through marches like this.
The streets around our apartment building were closed and we couldn’t get anywhere our home. With a car full of groceries, this meant days where I struggled to be open minded and non-judgemental about why or if any of this even made a difference.
Fast forward to May. Several weeks ago, over one weekend in March, everything changed. All of this stopped. Recognizing the health crisis that was in play as Covid-19 made its way across Europe and around the world, it became apparant that gatherings of any type for any reason were no longer safe and restrictions were put in place to prohibit them.
In just several weeks, our world has become different. Everything came to a halt. Priorities have changed. The palpable frustration about taxes, salaries, pension and retirement age has shifted to an uncertainty about the economy, industry survival and the affordability of basic needs of survival.
I know that these strong sentiments of frustration, of unjust deprival and even deceipt will return, stronger and more desperate than ever. But for now, there is a need to do our part, to come together instead of against each other… to recognize and appreciate our government and rulers for the work they are doing to ensure the health and safety of every single citizen….for the previously unimaginable decisions they are now faced with making in an absolutely unprecedented era.
A friend shared this quote recently and I can’t help but find comfort in it…