In October 2018, the French government implemented an increase in the tax on petrol and diesel of 3.9 cents and 7.6 cents per litre respectively. It also proposed further increases (of 2.9 cents on petrol and 6.5 cents on diesel) which would commence on 1st January 2019. These increases, both the actual and the proposed, caused massive dissent among the population of France and spawned the Gilets Jaunes (aka Yellow Vests or Yellow Jackets) movement. Unlike many other such movements, Giles Jaunes did not originally have any kind of recognised leadership and hierarchy. It was, and in many ways still is, a movement which spanned the political spectrum and any preconceived notions of class divisions.

Demonstrations prevailed, many of which turned into full blown riots. Riots which were so violent that journalists were routinely attacked and, the protestors themselves suffered life changing injuries at the hands of the various French police forces.

During his campaign for the Presidency in 2017, Emmanuel Macron promised to reform the pension system of France. In the latter part of 2019, his proposed reforms were published. These reforms can be condensed into three salient points.

  1. The consolidation of the 42 existing pension schemes into one state-managed system.
  2. Pension payments determined by the acquisition of points. This purchase of points is itself dependent on the salary of the worker.
  3. The retirement age will increase by two years from 62 to 64 years of age.

It is perhaps important to note that, should these changes be passed into French law, they will not come into effect until 2025.

As with the fuel tax increases, these proposals caused much of the French population to go on strike and take to the streets. The strikes originally started with the rail workers but, very soon, others joined the demonstrations. And, as with the Gilets Jaunes protests, the Gendarmes and the CRS were out in force.

On 14th January, I attended one of these demonstrations in Paris. It was easy to find one, my AirBnB host gave me a link to a website which gives information about, and publicises, the “manifestations”, as the French call them.

https://paris.demosphere.net

Even for a non-French speaker like myself, the site is easy to decipher. Dates, times, locations and much more, is all there. The little annotations proved to be extremely useful. A single exclamation mark means a large demo with a reasonably sized anticipated turnout. A double exclamation mark means something much bigger is planned and, expected. The one on 14thJanuary was annotated with two exclamation marks.

The demo congregated at Ecole Militaire in the 7th Arrondissement, at the junction of Place Joffre and Avenue de Suffren. Hoping to find people to talk to, I got there early. The corner had been sectioned off. There were three vans sporting large inflatable balloon-like structures, each emblazoned with the logos and slogans of various unions. Between two of these vans, the organisers had set-up a make-shift stall selling baguettes, water, soft drinks and…….bottles of beer. The atmosphere was jovial to say the least.

It took some doing but I was able to find somebody who spoke passable English. It was a fairly young guy, quite passionate about the various injustices perpetrated by those in power and a system which fails ordinary people on a daily basis. And that was the big problem that I immediately noticed here. Too many voices shouting about too many issues, all under the banner of two seemingly different things, the retirement age increase and the increases in fuel tax. Yes, that protest was still going on. Off and on, the French have now been protesting for more than fourteen months.

During our conversation, I explained to this young man that, as a Brit, I found it hard to understand what the problem was. I told him that our retirement age had been 65 i.e. a year older than the proposed French government increase to 64 and, that ours was now 67. That’s five years more than the current retirement age in France and three years more than the proposed age. I added that, even though many of us weren’t happy when our government increased our retirement age, we accepted it because we understand that the population is growing, and that people are living longer.

At first, he said that it was untrue that people were living longer, but soon changed track when I gave him a look of sheer incredulity. He then argued that, by people retiring younger, it kept the employment market active and, the older generations would still be young enough to find less demanding jobs, if they still needed to work or, be fit enough to enjoy their retirement. His assessment of the job market made no sense to me, but I left it there. Instead, I returned to my point about a growing population etc and pointed out that this meant that more money would be needed to pay for the increase in pension demands.

“Where will all of this money come from if not from your taxes?”

“The banks have money.”, was his response.

I changed the subject to the fuel tax increases. Again, I gave him the UK as a comparison. I explained to him that for years, successive governments (of every hue) have increased the duty on fuel.

“We’ve accepted this. You are out demonstrating. I don’t understand why.”

He started talking about everything from climate change to global corporations to a corrupt government to a broken political system and so on and so forth. Back to too many voices shouting about too many things and nothing being focused upon and actually achieved.

There were other things that I found curious about this demonstration. First, the media presence. There were quite a few photographers and videographers but, the vast majority of them seemed to be little more than independent bloggers. In other words, people like me. I did see two photographers who looked to be seasoned pros and, in hindsight, I wish that I had talked to them. Because, there was no real sign of any established news outlets. The one small team that I did see, had none of the usual logos on their kit and, more astonishingly, there was nothing around the mic that the “on the scene” correspondent would be using. What they did have however, was two burly bodyguards. It was only much later, while I was doing some research for this piece, that I found out about the demonstrators attacking the media. Consequently, I am unsure whether the main stream media outlets were not in evidence because of the attacks that they had suffered in the past or, because the story had already been told countless times. Or maybe like me, they couldn’t see the woods for the trees.

It’s impossible for me to say if this was an established news outlet. To the left of the shot can be seen one of the two bodyguards in attendance.

The march itself lasted just over three hours and about an hour in, we saw the first signs of heavily armed riot cops. At first, they kept their distance but, as the march got closer into built up areas, they were everywhere. They cordoned off the streets and basically corralled the marchers into where they wanted them to go. But it wasn’t their numbers which bothered me, it was their weapons and the general way that they were equipped. They looked more like stormtroopers from some kind of sci-fi film about a dystopian future than they did as keepers of the peace.

The French CRS - Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité.
The French CRS - Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité.

It’s taken me over two weeks to write this piece because, on the one hand, I do sympathise with a people who are finding it increasingly harder to manage financially. All of our European governments have been imposing various austerity measures since the financial melt-down of 2008 and, no matter how needed those measures may have been, many people have been at breaking point for a very long time. On the other hand however, I simply cannot see any real justification for the specific things that have brought them out in protest nor, in the clamour of the many voices each trying to get their own message heard above the others.

My mind was no further made up on Friday, 31st January and Saturday 1st February in Toulouse.

I arrived in Toulouse on Friday afternoon and had a long wait for my AirBnB hosts to get home from work so, I decided to wait at the train station. There was a heavy police presence throughout my wait. In fact, even while on the train journey, I saw four fully armed police officers checking the travel documents and ID’s of various individuals. I know that all of Europe has a very real problem with illegal immigrants but, there was a distinct air of racial profiling going on. And the same thing continued while I waited at the train station. Then, for no apparent rhyme or reason, I saw a couple of riot cops waiting by the entrance and two counter terrorism soldiers patrol the lobby area.

Gendarmes in riot gear. Ready for trouble at Toulouse Matabiau train station.
Military counter terrorism unit at Toulouse Matabiau train station.

The rhyme and reason soon became all too obvious. A small group of demonstrators had decided to play out a flash mob demo at the station. Some wore clown costumes and performed mimes, some sang, some read from their manifesto and, some handed out leaflets. I was approached a number of times but, I politely refused their offers explaining that I couldn’t speak French. Most left me alone in obvious disgust.

Demonstrators at Toulouse Matabiau train station.
More demonstrators at Toulouse Matabiau train station.

However, one more hardy soul decided to tackle the language barrier and speak to the Anglais. I told her that I’d attended a demo in Paris and that I was in the process of writing about it for my website.

“Ah but do you know what this demonstration is about specifically?”

“Erm……..the retirement age increases.”

“No. This is something different. This is because SNCF are automating all ticket sales and there will be no people selling them anymore.”

“Oh right. And you’re protesting about the loss of jobs?”

“No. Yes, but it’s more than that. People will only be able to buy tickets online. This is a real problem because I don’t have a smartphone or a printer. Many people don’t.”

My dear reader, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So, I just sat there, stunned at the absurdity of what I’d just heard. Heard and seen.

The cause for the protest was patently ridiculous. The police and military presence was, in my mind, both ridiculous and extremely intimidating. Intimidating to me, a fragile Anglais but, clearly not intimidating to the French.

Saturday was a beautiful day and I spent all of it walking around the streets of The Rose City that is Toulouse. Down one side street, I came across a group of CRS officers in there, now familiar, battle gear. I asked them if I could take their photo. A female officer surprisingly agreed. After I’d taken the shot, I asked her if there was something going on, if they were expecting anything.

CRS officers. Toulouse, 1st February 2020.

“Manifestations. It’s Saturday, always manifestations on Saturday.”

I told her that I had been to one in Paris and taken photographs. She smiled perhaps a bit too knowingly. I had no idea what that smile meant. I soldiered on regardless. I explained to her that, as a Brit, it felt very strange for me to see so many police in riot gear on the streets and to see them all so heavily armoured and armed. She tried to explain about the levels of violence at the demonstrations. Even though I could understand her perfectly well, she obviously felt that her English wasn’t up to the task at hand so called for one of her colleagues to take over. A mature, giant of a man who had clearly seen it all. After a bit of back-tracking, the conversation went as follows.

“Your police wear body armour.”

“Not like this they don’t. Even in demonstrations, the most that the normal police wear is stab proof vests and hi-viz jackets. A bit like the yellow vests that your protesters wear.”

“You have armed police in UK. You have armed rapid response units.”

“Yes, we do. But they are specialist units who are only called out if there are guns present or if it’s suspected that there will be guns present. Not at demonstrations. Even if they become riots. No guns like this.”, I pointed at his holstered automatic pistol.

“So what do they do if they are attacked, like that policeman who was killed with a machete by a Jamaican?”, here he gave the universally understood gesture of someone having their head chopped off. And there it was again, that clear tone of racism.

My new acquaintance clearly had no idea that I was fully conversant with the murder of PC Blakelock during the riots in the Broadwater Farm Estate in 1985, how could he.

“You’re talking about the riots in Tottenham in 1985.”, blank look.

“In Tottenham? You know, the football team, Tottenham Hotspurs, Spurs?”, the light of recognition.

“I lived there, less than 500 meters away. My sister was in the estate with her young child when it happened. It was a terrible riot. Fires, fighting, everything, and yes, a police officer was sadly murdered. But no guns. Not the police, not anybody.”

The stony faced look that he gave me said it all. As far as he was concerned, this was not up for debate. I thanked him for talking to me and moved on.

About half an hour later, I literally ran into the demonstration. Just as the one in Paris, they were in full voice and quite jovial. But what caught my eye with this one was the number of what were obviously volunteer paramedics. These guys and girls were fully prepared, with gas masks, helmets, chest armour in some cases and, all of the paraphernalia that a medic would need in a conflict zone. On top of all their clothing, they all wore white t-shirts emblazoned with the red medic symbol and green arm bands. I managed to get one of them to talk to me as we marched.

“The police are very violent right? Is this why you wear all of this protective clothing?”

“We have to. For our own safety, so that we can help those who need us. I was in the French Army. I know what these guys are like because I trained with them. They don’t mess around. We have to be ready. We are on the frontline.”

We continued to talk as we walked along and I couldn’t help but like the guy. As we parted company he wished me luck and told me to be careful. I shook his hand and said,

“You are the one who needs to be careful, you’re on the frontline!”, he smiled.

Ex-soldier and volunteer demo medic.

At about 05:00pm, I stopped at L’Esquirol Bar (which, rather unsurprisingly, is on Place Esquirol) for the local dish of Cassoulet with a glass or two of vin rouge. I had just finished my meal and, yes OK, I was on my second glass of wine, when there was a commotion on the street in front of the restaurant. A fairly small group of stragglers from the demo had found their way to Esquirol and seemed to be arguing amongst themselves. One guy was obviously very angry but, I had no clue as to why. I tried to find out, but the usual language barrier was there again. The vibe I got was that this guy wanted more action but the rest of the group felt that they had done what they came out to do. Within seconds, the gendarmes were on the scene. In full riot gear and with enough of them to stretch across the wide avenue. And plenty more to spare.

So, what’s my conclusion regarding all of this?

It’s easy to say that strikes and protests and demonstrations and even riots, are all in the DNA of the French populace. It’s easy to say that the French take great pride in La Révolution Française of 1789. Perhaps too much pride because, all of this unrest which seems to come out of France every few years well, it just can’t be good for anybody……….right?

Postscript: in the light of Brexit, this may be a contentious point for my fellow Remainers. It may even be completely irrelevant. I think what I’m about to add bears thinking about.

In May 2005, France held a referendum on the adoption of the proposed Constitution of the European Union. A number of EU member states mooted holding such referenda, including the UK, but when it came to it, most of them didn’t. France was in a particularly difficult position because, their written constitution did not easily dovetail into the new EU Constitution. To do so would require changes to the French Constitution. Something that many French people were very unhappy about. What they were also unhappy about was the compromising of their sovereign power in favour of power being held by an unelected body based somewhere other than in France. Sound familiar?

The Referendum was held. There was a 69% turnout. The vote went 55% against to 45% for the adoption of the EU Constitution. The EU Constitution was adopted regardless.

Dear reader, I cannot begin to tell you how many French people told me that they did not live in a democracy. That their votes didn’t matter. That their voices were not heard. That protest was all that they had. That, if that failed, the next step was revolution.

Paris, 14th January 2020
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