Coming out of H&M on the Champs-Elysées, I had pedestrians and policeman alike pushing me aside to get to a commotion happening along the side street next to the store. Protestors from the Yellow Vest movement were running down the side street to get away from the National Gendarmerie and the National Police, who were threatening to use stun grenades and other force to help keep the area and civilians safe.
That was the only moment of possible danger I encountered that night, but I got to watch the Yellow Vests peacefully protest on the Champs-Elysées until I decided the 1 degree Celsius night was too much for this native South Floridian.
Before I get into the specifics of everything I saw during my Yellow Vest observation, let’s get into how this came about and why they are protesting in this first place. In an effort to go green and reduce carbon emissions, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced new environmental taxes that are meant to incentivize consumers to take more eco-friendly routes when it comes to automotives. These include higher taxes for those with higher polluting vehicles in terms of carbon emission as well as higher fuel taxes in order to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
This policy change has sparked the Yellow Vest, or Gilets Jaunes, movement because many people cannot afford the drastic hike in fuel prices. In the beginning of the movement, it was supported by those in more rural areas where driving is an essential part of their day-to-day living. Now, it has spread to both the working and middle class who are frustrated with the system and the quality of living; they feel as though they earn too much to qualify for government assistance in welfare but don’t make enough to make ends meet, possibly due to the high cost of living here in France and especially in Paris. The average Parisian can earn a minimum salary of 1480,27€ (or approximately 1600 USD) per month, and their cost of living is about 908.48€ ( or approximately 1033 USD), not including rent. This is the just a basic summary of how the Yellow Vests, nicknamed for the safety vests they wear, came about and why they are doing what they are doing.
Now, let’s get back to what went down. As the protesters would shift from location to location down the Champs-Elysées, the police would as well. In addition to being hyper vigilant of my surroundings, I found it best to stay with both the police and the press to keep my safety paramount. Finally at around 7:30 p.m., on the side of the Champs-Elysées closest to the L’Arc de Triomphe, the protesters gathered around the nearby metro station, George V. Protesters were lying on the stairs on the metro station as well as clustering in the surrounding area. Police were lined up in front of the stairs, and they lined the street side in pristine 3 person formations.
One protester wearing a wolf hat, paraded in front of the police at the top of the metro stairs. He a long diatribe to say to all the police, who only returned cold, stoic faces to this lone wolf. The lone wolf’s tirade was meant to fire up the onlooking crowd as well as for him to finally publicly express his feelings on the matter at hand. After a 15 minute long speech full of animated facial expressions and silly mimicry, the lone wolf got a chant going: “je suis, j’étais et resterai moi, ni l’un nu l’autre.” It is from a popular Stromae song called Bâtard, and it roughly translates to “Not one nor the other, I am, was and will remain myself.” In this situation, I believe this man was using this song to say that the French people were not going to conform to their current situation and that they will continue to fight. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that lone wolf in the crowd.
That night, I talked to people from every side of the movement: protesters, police, volunteer medics, the press, and bystanders. It was incredible hearing the different perspectives. They were all so different, but they had one grand parallel between them: bettering the French people as a whole. It was very humbling to be in the presence of modern history unfolding right before my very eyes. It is modern history fueled by passion of the people’s’ beliefs, pride for their nation as a whole, and the hope that they can make France a better nation for its citizens by all the means necessary.
While this movement is an imperative part of my life while living in Paris, it really only affects my Saturdays. They protest the majority of the day on Saturday, and they generally hit very popular locations, like the Eiffel Tour or the Louvre. On those days, I know to take it easy on the tourist destination visits. Luckily, ISA keeps us as up to date as they can on where the protests will be happening every Saturday as well as the possible routes they might take. They give us all the information as to what to do if you happen to accidentally stumble into an area where protests are going on, so we are really prepared for anything. I’m glad knew what I did in terms of keeping a low profile and prioritizing my safety that day I came out of H&M.
I’m so grateful to have witnessed that little part of history in a peaceful manner. To see such a hot topic event happening in front of me was an experience I will never forget. I feel like I have not only a better understanding of the Yellow Vest movement itself but of the French people as a whole. I admire and appreciate how the people within their culture rally around their beliefs and, overarchingly, their desire to improve their nation. While seeing the Gilets Jaunes manifestation was an incredible moment, it was definitely a one time thing. For now, I’m making Saturday’s my designated homework and hanging out with friends day!