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Drummer at Place du Tocadéro, Paris. Photo: FWM
Paris

In a Yellow Vest through Paris

An exclusive FWM reportage on the Yellow Vest movement that has riled French President Emmanuel Macron for months now. Our reporter joined a group of the famous gilets jaunes.

Published: April 18, 2019, 6:33 am

    Philippe de Veulle. Photo: FWM

    It is one o’clock in the afternoon and Yellow Vest lawyer Philippe de Veulle sits in a Parisian brasserie behind the empty plate of what was his lunch. Around him sits a group of mostly young men and a few women. They discuss the protests of the last week. Franck, one of the young men, explains: “They are now increasingly dosing the tear gas. I was in a side street of the Champs Elysée, maybe 300 meters away. A woman came out of the Pakistani Embassy with a baby in her arms. Due to the gas in the air, the baby developed a very strong nosebleed. I helped the woman get away quickly.”

    De Veulle points out that another of the group had to go to hospital because of the tear gas and since then has had breathing problems. Then he turns to the discussion about the violence of the so-called “black bloc” violent protesters, not to be confused with the Antifas of the Black Bloc in Germany: “The government is violent. It leaves citizens hurt and mutilated, not those of the black bloc. Black Bloc protesters are attacking the symbols of financial capitalism and globalization, not the citizens. It is hypocritical what spectacle is presented about the destruction and how at the same time the victims of police violence are ignored.”

    A demand for the unpopular President Macron to resign. Photo: FWM

    The others of the group feel the same way. Someone explains: “Violence is not beautiful, but our enemy is not the black bloc but the global oligarchy. It is violent against the people. In this, all Yellow Vests agree, whether pacifists or black-bloc fighters, left or right.” De Veulle interjects laughing:”Or even monarchists, like me!”

    A slightly older gentleman from the group, who does not seem to be a Yellow Vest, asks de Veulle in English if the black bloc are not extreme left-wing thugs. De Veulle laughs loudly: “Look, if the state no longer fulfills its tasks, then the citizens must become the police. I’m getting many of the black bloc out of custody and they’re very grateful to me. These are not necessarily left-wing extremists.

    “There are right-wing, anti-globalization and simply desperate ones among them. Since Castaner [the Minister of the Interior] deprived me of the right to carry a weapon [he claims to be on the Islamic State’s death list for defending the victims of the attacks on the Bataclan and the Bardo Museum in Tunisia], it is the black bloc which protect me from the Antifa!”

    Gilets Jaunes mascot. Photo: FWM

    A short time later, the group leaves the brasserie. Fargo, a black-clad man wearing black sunglasses, pulls his black hood over his head and puts on his black leather gloves as he enters the metro. He’s on the phone all the time, making sure our group stays together, while organising the metro ride according to the latest traffic developments. He is without doubt De Veulles’ black bloc bodyguard.

    In the metro, nobody wears a Yellow Vest so as not to startle the security forces. Only when leaving the train at the Trocadéro they are put on. There, a group of Yellow Vests is already waiting for the lawyer who greets each one individually and asks if everything is alright. The mood is peaceful. There are groups of police officers all over the place, but they are not masked, suggesting they are not planning an attack. They pay no attention to Fargo or other black-clad Yellow Vests on the lawn, nor to African dealers selling miniature Eiffel towers made of metal and plastic to tourists.

    A Yellow Vest disguised as Revolutionary flag bearer plays the drum. A woman holds up a placard reading: “Call to human intelligence: the Yellow Vests are hostages. Who will be guilty of the next announced and deliberately planned dead? Macron and his ministers? The ‘Chaots’ [violent anarchists]? The security forces? Help us! Justice and truth!”

    Thibault, a young Catholic Yellow Vest with rocker’s long hair, is also there. As always, he wears a rosary around his neck and the heart of Jesus on the yellow vest, symbol of the counter-revolution in the Vendée at the time of the French Revolution. He became known throughout France with a live video in which he explains: “The real social parasite is Macron. The guy has not created a real added value for a day in his life. When he calls us lazy, it’s a big laugh. When I work, my boss pays me. Macron, on the other hand, lets me pay for it. In a way, that’s why he’s my prostitute!”

    In another video, Thibault pointed out the state funding and promotion of Antifa. Since then he is in danger at the Yellow Vest demos. But at noon today everything is quiet.

    Yellow Vests gather. Photo: FWM

    Sophie joins the group. She is a nursing assistant, in her mid-40s, from the Paris banlieues. She is emotional, good-natured, somewhat naive and close to the left-wing populist party “La France Insoumise” of the Communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Above all, Sophie has a great need for communication.

    “At work, they streamline one job after the other. In the night shift we are still one or two nursing aides responsible for all patients. It is impossible to treat the patients with humanity under the pressure of time. In addition, we increasingly have to take on tasks that are actually the responsibility of the nurses. We are all strong at the end. We only have one free day in the week!” she gushes.

    She adds that while she is not an intellectual, she is certain that things can not go on like this. The wealth must be distributed more equitably. Then Mohammed, an African, approaches the group. He seems to be an illegal, one in search of fortune as are all the unhappily stranded, of which the French capital is overflowing. Sophie knows him, welcomes him warmly, and invites him to come along with the Yellow Vests, which he does.

    Fargo reunites with the group. On the way to the metro station he opens his black jacket with a grin and shows a slit in the lining under his arm. In this hole, which can hardly be recognized, he quickly puts on his Yellow Vest. Sophie, who still wears her Yellow Vest, is admonished by him since there would be a penalty of 135 euros. She laughs: “I do not care. They can not get anything from me anyway. It does not matter if they want 135 or 500 euros!”

    But Fargo insists that she packs it away. “You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble!” So Sophie stuffs it into her big cloth bag. “These are first aid products. I am absolutely against violence, but there are so many injured,” she explains.

    The ride is to the Gare de l’Est, but Fargo is on the phone again and spontaneously changes the route. Sacre Coeur, the terminus of the official demo route, is now the destination. The path is difficult. We change a couple of times, change the lines, but many stations are sealed. Fargo blows his top: “These pigs! They do not want to let us demonstrate!” he yells.

    Sophie shouts: “The Yellow Vests are alive!” The other passengers regard them both disapprovingly, because the Parisians, as well as the inhabitants of the other big cities, are mostly hostile to the Yellow Vests. At the station La Chapelle in one of the currently disreputable districts of Paris the journey is over.

    Immediately groups of young men from the Middle East and Africa stand out, loitering everywhere on the street. Some have a glassy drugged look and stare straight into the void, the others harass the passersby aggressively. This does not stop Sophie from asking a group of young Afghans for directions to the Sacre Coeur, while Fargo is being briefed on the latest developments. Two of the Afghans move their heads slightly in one direction, then one shouts “Five Euros!” Sophie, filled with indignation: “What? you want five euros for that? But we are also fighting for you!” The migrants grin provocatively. No idea if they understood anything.

    Fargo takes command again while passing other groups of young men, Arab shops for oriental bridal wear, vegetable stores and bakeries.

    ‘We don’t like Casta(g)ner’ is a word play on the Interior Minister’s name which signifies ‘beating’. Photo: FWM

    Along the road are parked about ten police vehicles. In addition to a civilian vehicle black-clad men are standing around. “These are Castaner’s militias,” whispers Sophie. “I know them. They beat us for 4 000 euros! These are Eastern Europeans. I once had some standing in front of me who spoke in a different language,” Sophie continues.

    Christophe Castaner is France’s controversial Minister of Interior, who acts brutally against the Yellow Vests. Suddenly the police vehicles with sirens and blue lights are set into motion. We continue up the hill of Montmartre through run-down streets where only the architecture of the houses reminds you that this is France.

    High up, in front of Sacre Coeur is a rather cheerful atmosphere. Yellow Vests are everywhere and are chatting excitedly. The basilica is sealed off by a double row of unmasked policemen, all of whom act more relaxed. In front of it stands François, a Yellow Vest that carries a big cross like Jesus. Jean-Pierre, another Yellow Vest with a wooden cross around his neck, declares that they are peaceful Yellow Vests and that he opposes the notion of the security forces being enemies. After all, much of their behavior depends on the further development of events.

    Then he complains: “The movement has infiltrated by left-wing extremists who do not like to see us here. They act a bit like a militia suppressing all forces that do not suit them. The strength of the movement lies in the fact that there is a great deal of discussion here. Above all, people talk to each other, who would never exchange a word under normal circumstances, but in some cases the willingness to engage in dialogue quickly reaches its limits,” explains Jean-Pierre.

    And he continues undaunted: “We, the Catholic-monarchist Yellow Vests are certainly a minority. The ecclesiastical hierarchy reacts very reservedly towards the Yellow Vests. Only a few traditionalist priests support them.”

    Jean-Pierre points to a young priest in a cassock who is excitedly conversing a few meters away. “But today we are experiencing historical moments,” he continues, “The outcome of the revolution is uncertain, but things can not go on as it has been so far. Look, my 92 year old mother has to live with 600 Euro pension monthly. That’s impossible.”

    Another few meters further on, a group of leftists carrying a blood-red flag discuss heatedly with a bald monarch about the role and responsibility of the capitalists for the French Revolution. Left-wing activists repeat the official account of the French Revolution as a liberation struggle of the oppressed people against a tyrannical king and an exploitative bourgeoisie. The monarchist tells them that they repeat only what they were indoctrinated in state schools. “In reality, the revolution was a plot by the Freemasons, who have always been closely associated with high finance, against the king and people.

    Stephane, a former army parachutist , tries to persuade police officers to switch sides. Photo: FWM

    “Everything was financed by Swiss bankers.” The left-wing radicals strongly refute his statement: “Aristocracy and the bourgeoisie exploited the people. The people revolted against it and freed themselves.” The discussion comes to a sudden end as Jean-Luc Mélenchon reaches the hill. All leftists run towards him cheering. But the response of the rightists is unmistakable: “Get lost!” Then the situation calms down again as fast as it had heated up.

    Stephane, a former army parachutist wearing Gaullism symbols on his hat, tries to discuss with the security forces and persuade them to switch sides. “By and large, the relationship with them is not so bad. We have to be patient.” He does not want to know so much about the problems with left-wing extremists. “In general, we all get along relatively well. There are problems, but we should not overstate them.”

    The gathering slowly dissolves. The marchers retrace their steps, descending once again. Some police cars are there. Sirens can be heard. Groups of people come back from the east. “They gassed at Gare de l’Est!” they shout. The metro station Anvers is closed. An elderly Yellow Vest with crutches stands in front of the station, scolding: “These bastards! They do that after every demo. So that people can not get away!”

    Rudolf Erdmann

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