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Past graffiti-covered warehouses and wholesale superstores; past railway sidings, public housing blocks and a shanty town. This is a suburban railway journey from central Paris, through the grim outskirts and into the resentful gilets jaunes country of small-town France, neither prosperous nor poor. There are no taxis at the station, so I walk through a litter-strewn wood and across a deserted industrial estate to reach my destination.
Priscillia Ludosky has set our rendezvous for lunch in the unremarkable Bois Sénart shopping centre near her home in Savigny-le-Temple, south-east of Paris. I sense that this is not going to be the sort of Lunch with the FT where film stars and financiers greet us discreetly from across the restaurant while we are attended by a solicitous chef.
I have been trying for months to meet Ludosky to try to understand the gilets jaunes uprising that has shaken President Emmanuel Macron’s government since November last year. She helped launch the movement with an online petition against rising fuel prices for motorists — caused partly by Macron’s carbon tax — that garnered more than 1m signatures and triggered the first big gilets jaunes march through Paris on November 17.
Her demand struck a chord among residents of France’s small towns, who depend on their cars to go about their daily lives and feel neglected by Macron’s elite coterie of scooter-riding twenty- and thirtysomethings ensconced in a French capital well-served by public transport. That was why the gilet jaune — the high-visibility yellow waistcoat that must be carried by all motorists in case of accidents — became the movement’s enduring symbol.
Many of the demonstrators were angry. A large number at the start were elderly backers of the far-right, anti-immigration Rassemblement National party of Marine Le Pen, while the recent demonstrations in Paris were more influenced by anarchists and the far left. Ludosky, a 33-year-old entrepreneur and former back-office employee in the investment banking arm of BNP Paribas, is none of these things.
She is certainly not angry when, in dreadlocks, casual shirt and jeans, she greets me cheerfully at the mall’s Columbus Café, our lunch venue. Nor, she says, has she so far been tempted by repeated offers to join French political parties of left and right, although my research suggests she is the most politically and economically coherent of the motley collection of gilets jaunes who have periodically emerged as unofficial leaders of the movement.
It was a difficult uprising to manage — and difficult for the government to suppress. Protesters staked out suburban roundabouts. Every Saturday for months, thousands descended on city centres from suburbs and small towns across the country with an expanding and sometimes contradictory set of demands: they wanted Macron to resign; they wanted lower taxes and more public services; they wanted referendums among citizens to supplant the decisions of their elected (and overpaid, they thought) representatives.
So how on earth did a child of immigrants from Martinique, living in the suburban Seine-et-Marne département, come to launch this popular uprising — one that sent Macron into a funk for weeks, and echoed the UK and US rebellions against the metropolitan elite crystallised in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump?
We are alone in the clean, well-lit and desperately bland café. I disconsolately examine the ham and cheese ciabattas in their paper bags that we have chosen as our main course. Was she surprised, I ask, by the response to that call for the first big protests?
“Yes,” she says. “I was deluged with emails and requests via Messenger from loads of people who shared their experiences and said, ‘We’re going to take to the streets, but you know we’re not going to do it just because of the petrol price, or the environment, but because of everything that’s wrong’ — and the main subject was the cost of living.
“People said, ‘We’ve got to the stage where even if you earn €2,000 a month, you can’t make ends meet because there are too many taxes, too many expenses, we’re completely crushed, and when you do the shopping or go to the doctor you have to pay in instalments’. Eventually people said, ‘We can’t take it any more.’ ”
So Ludosky teamed up with Eric Drouet — a truck driver also from Seine-et-Marne who had created a Facebook page calling for a national blockade over rising fuel prices, but with whom she has since fallen out — to launch the protests across France. “I was in Paris myself and we came singing the Marseillaise on the Champs-Elysées, and we were suffocated with tear gas.”
Her original contribution, a detailed fuel-price petition setting out the environmental and fiscal arguments, had an inauspicious start when she published it online in May last year. A few hundred relatives, friends and acquaintances signed up before France went on holiday in July and August. She later distributed it more widely via Facebook and was interviewed by a local radio station and the local newspaper. But it was only when her story was picked up by Le Parisien, a national paper, that “the number of signatures exploded”.
Snatching a bite of ciabatta — fresh but flavourless — and a sip of lemonade to the sound of the shopping mall’s tinkling muzak, I ask Ludosky the obvious question: can the gilets jaunes phenomenon be counted a success as its first anniversary approaches?
I expect her to boast about Macron’s climbdown on the fuel tax and his subsequent attempts to defuse public anger with some €25bn of tax cuts and extra spending plans aimed at the working middle class. Instead, she talks about the way the protests have brought together France’s disparate communities.
Bois Sénart shopping centre, Cesson, France
Lunch formule x2 €17
Ham and mozzarella ciabatta x2
Dark chocolate fleur de sel cookie
Milk chocolate and hazelnut cookie
Minute Maid apple juice
“I wouldn’t call it a success, but it’s changed quite a lot of things,” she says. “What’s changed is that people have come out of solitude and isolation to share their problems. And they have helped each other, there has been a great movement of solidarity and fraternity which basically didn’t exist in France because people are so tied up in their daily lives, their worries, and then their work, work, work that people don’t talk to each other any more.
“It’s also meant that different types of people get together who never normally meet. When you think that there have been discussions, conferences and movements organised between working-class people and members of the elite, that’s unheard of in France.” She chews her own ciabatta. “In fact it’s incredible to see this kind of thing, and it’s allowed people to express themselves because ordinary people don’t usually get access to the media to put their point of view.”
Like many gilets jaunes protesters, Ludosky has a complicated relationship with the media. The weekly marches have been organised largely over social-media platforms such as Facebook, and the movement has been generously covered on 24-hour television news stations. But she complains that news bulletins tend to summarise a six-hour march with a 90-second video clip showing clashes between police and rioters after most gilets jaunes have gone home. “The gilets jaunes is not just about burning rubbish bins,” she says.
And what about Macron, the man who revolutionised French politics with an insurgent campaign from the previously invisible liberal centre to win the 2017 elections? Does she hate him as much as her fellow gilets jaunes seem to?
“At the beginning, when people shouted ‘Macron resign!’ and told me ‘We don’t hear you shouting with us’, I said, ‘I’m not out here particularly so that Macron resigns, I’m here to condemn the problems I’ve been talking about, whether it’s him or someone else in charge’ . . . But now, given the way he’s handled the news and dealt with the gilets jaunes crisis, yes, today I think it would be good if he did resign, and especially [Christophe] Castaner [the interior minister] as well.”
Police weapons, including so-called “Flash-Balls” that shoot projectiles for crowd control, caused hundreds of eye and other injuries among protesters. Not that the demonstrators have been entirely peaceable: some attacked police and went on the rampage in city centres, notoriously sacking shops along the Champs-Elysées and defacing the Arc de Triomphe on December 1.
Macron, Ludosky says, was at first in denial over the gilets jaunes, then scornful, and then decided to defuse the protests with his nationwide “great debate”, a two-month consultation exercise that she dismisses as an “enormous con-trick” and a chance for the president to put on a “one-man show” (she uses the English term) of his rhetorical skills. As we embark on our intensely sweet American-style cookies, she concludes: “I find him very disconnected from reality, from people on the ground.”
Drouet talked of marching on the Élysée Palace and was convicted in September of carrying a wooden club. Ludosky favours negotiation over confrontation. She has already met two ministers in the course of the crisis and only cancelled a meeting with Édouard Philippe, Macron’s prime minister, when he insisted on excluding the press. Ludosky and others have this week requested a meeting with Macron before the first anniversary to address the issue of police violence and take into account the protesters’ demands.
Unlike some of the other gilets jaunes, Ludosky — who worked on letters of credit in her 11 years at BNP Paribas after a diploma in international trade — rises to the challenge when asked by sceptics such as myself how protesters can demand both lower taxes and more public services. “People are not saying they don’t want to pay taxes,” she retorts. “They’re saying ‘What are you doing with the taxes?’ When there’s no street lighting, or no childcare facilities or a shortage of hospitals and you’re building four unnecessary roundabouts, that’s what we’re complaining about. So, yes, we’re asking to put a stop to tax rises until you justify what you’re doing.”
As for taxes, she wants to know what the government means when it says it is spending the money on the “transition” to cleaner energy. “Given there’s no public transport in the countryside, what exactly are they financing for this transition?” Ludosky, in short, is not opposed on principle to environmental policies but resents their imposition by a heedless elite that has not thought about the consequences on the ground.
I have read that since leaving the bank Ludosky has been running a small aromatherapy and cosmetics business from her home, and I am curious — as we turn to our espressos — to know whether she has managed to make it work amid the distractions of running a revolution.
She laughs. “Well, until April or May I had no life, I was 300 per cent gilet jaune, I put my shop on hold — and I had just launched my aromatherapy advice page but I’ve never advised anyone because I didn’t have time. From May onwards, I began to ease off and to choose projects that I really wanted to pursue for the gilets jaunes movement.
“Right now, I’m earning nothing. When I left BNP I got two years of support for creating a new business [via a government programme] and the two years are up in November.”
But has it all been worth it? Ludosky — who is neither Polish nor married to a Pole, and whose name probably derives from one of the first slaves freed in Martinique — says she has been strongly supported by family and friends amid a flurry of TV debates and interviews.
I ask whether the publicity has exposed her to racist abuse, and I recall that there has been violence and intolerance on all sides: at one gilets jaunes march in Paris in February, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was subjected to an anti-Semitic tirade by a gilet jaune telling him to “go back to Tel Aviv”. Ludosky shrugs. “There has been some of that, but fewer than the insults without racist connotations. Mostly I was insulted by people because they were pro-Macron.”
Although she wants to go back to making her living, Ludosky is helping to prepare “a big deal” of a first anniversary demonstration on November 17. (The most recent gilets jaunes protests have attracted only a few hundred participants in the biggest cities.) In the longer term, she wants to establish a “citizens’ lobby” group to address problems she thinks are not dealt with by the authorities and parties in power.
“The idea,” she says, “is to create a network all over France . . . to mobilise people on local issues that are very, very, very neglected. It’s something I realised when I wandered around everywhere to demonstrate with gilets jaunes in the south, the east, the west, the north. They often said to me when we have a problem in our département, no one gives a damn. Some have extremely serious unemployment. In other places like the south they are breathing polluted air and are all sick. In Carcassonne, it’s arsenic that is contaminating the land and the water.”
Before we go our separate ways, I ask if she has hopes, ambitions or fears for the future. “Worries . . . Not for me, for France,” she replies, explaining that the country known for its 1789 revolution and now for the gilets jaunes has a responsibility to show the way for others, including the young Hong Kong democracy activist who sought her out at the end of last year.
“There’s something I perhaps didn’t mention a moment ago, and that is that in going here and there and meeting people from other countries, lots of people said to me, ‘We’re watching you, we’re using you as an example for dealing with our own problems, and the fact that you dared to say something’ . . . This man waited for me and said, ‘Hello, I’m from Hong Kong, I’m passing through and I just want to know how the movement started.’ ”
With Hong Kong’s uprising against China’s heavy-handed rule in full swing, and the world in turmoil from Brazil to Brexit Britain, she has given me food for thought.
“It’s true, things are boiling over everywhere,” she says, and heads across the corridor of the mall to do her shopping while I start for home. It is only 40km away but it will take two hours, and Ludosky has already convinced me that the distance between central Paris and the Seine-et-Marne heartland of the gilets jaunes is measured in more than kilometres or minutes.
Victor Mallet is the FT’s Paris bureau chief
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