An account of Saturday's demonstrations in Paris
(Image courtesy of Ciat Conlin, 2018)
December 19, 2018:
On the Champs-Élysées at 9 am Saturday morning, I wandered in the precarious silence as the crowd of yellow vests slowly gathered. I was immediately struck by the variety of ideologies represented: anarchist and communist symbols, naked, silver-painted women from the French-Ukrainian feminist group Femen, protest signs that ranged from calls for a sixth republic and a new constitution to banks and the Illuminati, as well as an array of ethnic and regional flags-- Berber, Catalan, Breton, Wallonian.
By 10:30, a large crowd had gathered, at which point we were encircled by the police, and not allowed to leave. But the real action had not yet began. I spoke with several people, each with very different reasons for being there. Three men who had come from Normandy described the strain of fuel taxes on their income, since they often had to drive long distances. A man in a black hat said he was an anarchist-- but, he clarified, a “literary anarchist,” and not the kind “that burns things in the street.” He explained that he has nationalist friends who have come with him to the demonstrations, and that he believes that nationalism is the only real alternative to neoliberalism in France--and that if that’s true, he’ll take it.
By 11.30, we had to start running. The police had been attempting to isolate and encircle the protesters, but eventually people had broken past them. The police hit back at those breaking through with batons and started firing tear gas canisters. We ran down towards Iéna, near the river; I felt the sting of tear gas in my eyes, though I had avoided being directly exposed to it. All the while, the crowd continued shouting, “Tous ensemble, tous ensemble!” or “Macron démission!” and, at calmer moments, singing the Marseillaise. Sometimes a passerby in a car or motorcycle would honk or shout words of approval and the crowd would shout and wave back. The walls of buildings were covered in word and images mocking Macron, demanding his resignation or, occasionally, his execution-- graffiti left over from the unrest of the preceding Saturdays.
In many ways the protest was oddly contained. Since the 17th of November, the demonstrations have taken place each Saturday without fail. On previous Saturdays there was serious rioting, with stores looted and buildings burned, and serious casualties, including several deaths . Yet on the other days of the week, life in Paris remained relatively normal. Even during the demonstration, there were strange reserves of normalcy. An outdoor market on Avenue du Président Wilson remained open during the protest--and people bought fish,vegetables, and whole rabbits while police and protesters clashed mere meters outside the stands. The market seemed a temporarily neutral place where police, gilets jaunes, and shoppers coexisted without bothering each other.
Though the demonstrations began in November with grievances over an increase in fuel taxes , they have since expanded to encompass a much larger set of demands of Macron’s government--from an increase in the minimum wage to smaller class sizes in schools . In the week leading up to this Saturday Macron had surprisingly made a few concessions --among them an increase in the minimum wage and tax cuts for pensioners . While in weeks past entire buildings had burned, this Saturday was calm by comparison .
I saw little violence on Saturday that did not come from the police. Around 3:30, a pile of wood and cardboard was set ablaze in the middle of Rue de la Boétie. At first the fire was small and tame, and as people gathered to warm their hands over it, it seemed less threatening than cosy on a cold December day. Masked people danced around the fire to classic rock and punk music. Someone poured lighter fluid on the fire and it grew, exhaling a cloud of black smoke. At this point, the police came, again with tear gas, as well as CRS units with fierce-looking dogs. We ran down the street and stood slightly out of the way by the entrance of a store-- closed, like most others in the area, in anticipation of the demonstration. We watched the confrontation and, with our scarves and marks, tried to breathe in as little gas as possible. The scent of tear gas mixed with smoke is one I’ll always remember. After a while a fire truck came to put out the fire and the scene calmed down.
On the Champs-Élysées, I spoke to a casseur, “breaker,”-- one of the violent protesters who have been the focus of much of the media coverage. He actually walked up to us and volunteered that he was “one of the casseurs.” He, unsurprisingly, seemed a little aggressive, but he was willing to speak and asserted the necessity of violence-- violence is what keeps a mass demonstration going, it’s the energy of it, and without it the demonstration is ineffective because there’s no real threat. An American participating in the protests told me there were two different kinds of casseurs-- les vrai casseurs, the real ones whose eyes were wild with the adrenaline of political violence, and the police infiltrators whose expressions were bureaucratically cold. He said that they sometimes went around trying to start fights with protesters, an opinion shared by a number of others. Though I cannot confirm this, what I saw made me sympathetic to this view.
By this point in the afternoon, a massive crowd had formed on the Champs-Elysées, yet it was relatively calm. A communist organization called Proletarian Revolution held up a banner for their cause. A woman holding it told me she was there for the revolution, and for the working class. Many people compared the gilets jaunes movement to May 1968. And as confusing as much of it remains, the clearest thing about this movement is that it is truly popular. Recently 68% of French people expressed support for the movement, while Macron’s approval rating continues to decline . Ordinary people were here in a mass demonstration--the only kind that can really make a difference. The economic impact has put pressure on the government; it is clear from Macron’s recent concessions that the state feels threatened. . Where the movement will go I do not know, but running with them, shouting, chanting, and singing, it was impossible not to feel a sense of solidarity and hope.
1. “« Gilets jaunes » : une troisième journée de mobilisation marquée par des violences,” Le Monde, 2 December 2018,
2. Elisabeth Zerofsky, “The Complicated Politics of the Gilets Jaunes Movement,” The New Yorker, 12 December 2018,
3. “VERBATIM. Voici toutes les revendications des Gilets jaunes,” Le Journal du Dimanche, 28 November 2018,
4. Leigh Thomas, “Macron’s concessions set to blow out French deficit,” Reuters, 11 December 2018,
5. Peter Conradi, “Gilet jaunes protestors return to Paris in smaller numbers,” The Times, 15 December 2018,
6. “Sondage Opinion Way - LCI : le soutien aux Gilets jaunes ne faiblit pas,” LCI, 07 December 2018 https://www.lci.fr/social/sondage-lci-le-soutien-au-gilets-jaunes-toujours-aussi-massif-2106784.html
7. “French business counts the cost of ‘gilet jaunes’ protests,” The Financial Times, 10 December 2018,