It seemed like old times. Returning to Paris after 15 years away, I soon tasted the acrid tang of tear gas and saw protesters marching on the National Assembly, van-loads of riot police waiting to be unleashed on the crowds and angry young men throwing stones and bottles at gendarmes guarding a bridge across the Seine.
We could, at first glance, have been back in the 1980s, when students took to the streets of the French capital to protest against education reforms, or in the 2000s, when hundreds of thousands marched to reject the extreme rightwing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and against pension reform.
Yet the gilets jaunes protests that have shaken France have evolved into something broader and more diffuse. When I witnessed my first march in Paris this month, the Saturday demonstrations were in their seventh week and few of the participants agreed on what they were protesting about. By last weekend, factions in the movement were bickering over what to do next and thousands of rival “ red-scarves” marched in the rain against the violence.
Some gilets jaunes marchers are environmental activists who grow their own vegetables. Some want all major decisions put to referendums instead of taken by elected politicians. Some wave Corsican flags. Others are “Frexit” nationalists who want France to leave the EU. Still others are casseurs (wreckers) bent on looting, burning cars or attacking the police.
Hélène, 45, is a music festival organiser who is “against the neoliberal system” and the euro, and appalled that an investment banker — Emmanuel Macron — has become president of France.
Yves Grare, a retired 61-year-old sign painter, says that in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, he voted for an anarchist; in the second, he voted for the late comedian Coluche — a spoiled vote — because he liked neither Mr Macron nor his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie.
You could be forgiven for thinking that all this smacks of the chaotic events of 1968, the anti-establishment uprising that nearly toppled then-president Charles de Gaulle. The first demonstrator I met was Bernadette Noël, a 73-year-old nurse and great-grandmother who had come into the city from suburban Seine-et-Marne to complain about the increase in her pensioner’s tax bill since Mr Macron took office. She told me this was the first time she had taken part in a protest since 1968.
Seen in hindsight, the events of 1968 have a certain romance in a country founded on a revolution. On the bathroom wall of the furnished apartment we have rented is a photo from that time of an overturned car, with a slogan painted on its roof: “Run, comrade, the old world is behind you.” Since then, big Paris demonstrations have usually had specific goals and been organised by trade unions or political parties. But the gilets jaunes movement, which began as a targeted provincial motorists’ protest against green fuel taxes (hence the yellow vests, which must be carried in French cars in case of accidents) has become a nationwide uprising against the status quo.
The comparison with the past is misleading. Many of today’s gilets jaunes are not student anarchists or leftwing trade unionists but middle-aged, rightwing conservatives from country towns. They want lower taxes. They frequently express their distaste for immigration and are suspicious of globalisation. Ms Le Pen’s National Rally party has so far gained the most political capital from the protests.
The gilets jaunes typically have more in common with contemporary supporters of President Donald Trump in the US, Brexit voters in the UK and the Italians who propelled the anti-immigrant League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to power in Rome. They live in one of the richest societies in history, but feel neglected and insulted by an out-of-touch metropolitan elite. Mr Macron’s advisers sparked the crisis by failing to appreciate how their lofty environmental and road safety goals would hit the pockets of the millions of workers who commute by car.
For the gilets jaunes, the hate figUre is the sometimes haughty Mr Macron. Even as the movement splinters, rejection of the French president is the one position on which the protesters I have met can all agree.
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