French protests: voices of the Yellow Vests

Door Jan van der Made

For the tenth Saturday in a row, Yellow Vest demonstrators gathered in Paris to express their anger with French President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms. Last Sunday, the president wrote an open letter to the French in which he called for a two-month “grand debate,” hoping to diffuse tensions that have paralysed Paris and other cities as demonstrators took over the streets. If it is up to them, the movement won’t stop anytime soon.

“It’s not enough. This so-called “Grand Débat” is nonsense,” says Christof, one of hundreds of Yellow Vest demonstrators who gathered this Saturday in front of the Dome des Invalides in central Paris.

“The house was quite a long way from the village itself,” says Richard Tomlinson, author of the recently published book Landru’s Secret – The Deadly Seductions of France’s Lonely-Hearts Serial Killer, “so it was easy for him to come and go, and I think a lot of the time he wasn’t seen.” On a bitterly cold but sunny Saturday morning, the Yellow Vests are gearing up for yet another march through Paris. Strategic points such as roads and bridges leading up to the Champs Elysées are cordonned of by a massive police presence. In Front of the Grand Palais, two blue armored personnel carriers are ready and waiting, their engines humming and ready to jump into action. Police in full riot gear, armed with machine guns check pedestrians who want to cross the secured lines.

On the esplanade in front of the iconic Dome de Invalides, one group of Yellow Vests is wearing white with a red cross. “I am here to demonstrate, but also to help people who may get hurt,” says Viriginie a nurse. She is not happy with Macron’s attempt to organise a dialogue either. “He only received mayors,” she says, referring to the president’s meeting, earlier in the week, with a group of mayors during a tour to the southwest of France.

“And even these mayors say that he is only there to campaign for the European elections [on 23-26 May]. Macron doesn’t listen to the people of France. Others reproach Macron for only thinking about the interests of the “upper classes.” “When Macron was elected, his very first law was to cancel tax for business owners and the wealth tax. A 40 billion Euro free gift for the rich!" exclaims George, who has “Yellow is the new Red” written in English on the back of his yellow vest

But what if he doesn’t? “He needs to give us more money, more hospitals, schools. We need to live. I don’t want to argue about that. Our demands are clear,” says George. Aren’t the Yellow Vests afraid that the continuous demonstrations risk disrupting France’s economy as foreign investors start to become wary that the unrest may harm their businesses? “Business owners are only interested in money,” says George. “They move out as soon as they can find cheap labour elsewhere. Last year, Goodyear closed. Ford in Bordeaux has decided to close down. That was long before the Yellow Vests. There is no connection.”

Meanwhile, near the Grand Palais, a trickle of tourists, undeterred by the cold and the Yellow Vests, visits an exhibition on Michael Jackson. “I was honestly a bit afraid,” says Robert, a Swiss tourist living in Denmark, who is visiting Paris with his girlfriend. “There was this [gas] explosion in Paris, is hard to find out where we can travel -- like today we want to go to Versailles, but the station is completely closed down.” But overall he isn’t too worried. “It is happening only in some parts of Paris. I think some parts are still safe to go. And it's only on Saturdays. If you can avoid the weekends, it’s not that bad here.”

Does he expect the Yellow Vest action to continue? "The French are known for their rebellion. And looking back at history, they won’t give up that easily, and the longer it goes, the more violent it will grow,” he thinks.

"They stare straight back at him until he has to look away, and they are just determined to send him to the guillotine," he says.